Capturing Africa, by Africans

I thought this was a great first start by two African photographers based in Ghana (Nyani Quarmyne and Nii Obodai) trying to portray Africans, and climate change in Africa, as they are rarely portrayed: through the eyes of Africans.

I say “great start” not because the photos aren’t beautiful or interesting–they definitely are, especially the second, of an amazingly well-framed young boy standing among the remaining walls of his house near the sea–but because I think that there is still more that could be done to get away from portraying the stereotypes and conventional stories, as well as portraying more diverse facets of the effects of climate change.

Also came upon this photo on Quarmyne’s website:

As Obodai said,

“I can see that there’s a mentality of confusion at play, but it’s not a poor place. Africans are not poor people. We might be making wrong choices, but we’re not poor people. I refuse to play that poverty game. That’s a choice we’re making.”

Looking forward to seeing more work from both of these two that validates Obodai’s conclusion.

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11 Days, 7 hours, 53 minutes

…. until I leave behind the soaring stained-glass windows of Sainte Chapelle, the miles and centuries of skeletons stacked inside the Catacombs, and the glow of the Eiffel Tower at night [as well as a few more wondrous things I mentioned here.]

Three months ago, I came with no grand expectations, no lengthy to-do lists of shopping on the Champs-Elysées (too expensive), climbing up the Eiffel Tower at night (worth it, no matter how cheesy), or trying overpriced macarons (definitely not worth it; alfajores are much better). In about 11 days, I will leave this barbaric paradise, appreciative and relieved.

Windows of the Ste Chapelle church

Lower hall of Ste Chapelle

Stacked bones inside the Catacombes

Tour Eiffel at night

Appreciative for the chance to get the living-in-romantic-Paris-for-a-few-months bug out of my system; to witness a city that’s changed much in terms of history and architecture, but very little in terms of mindset over the last few centuries; to eat the best crunchy-outside-and-soft-interior baguettes you can imagine; to better appreciate [American] washing machines that don’t jam your fingers as you attempt to close them and [American] windows that have screens to keep out mosquitoes and [American] diets that include real vegetables and fruits, not drenched in butter or syrup.

Relieved to find out that I will not need to move to Paris to be happy, as I had naively thought as a kid. I’ll miss the endless array of colorful, completely unhealthy pastries on display in neighborhood bakeries; the ability to walk along the Seine on a warm night with the yellow haze of lights transforming the water into Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhône; and the inevitable respect for the old and older while walking down the small, winding streets of the Marais… But I won’t miss the many rude waiters, the urine-stained streets, the racism and resistance to change, the need to wear heels to a grocery store to fit in.

My humble verdict: Is Paris worth visiting? Absolutely. Is it worth living in? Only if you live with friends.

Bamboo: the next revolution?

In Africa’s Vanishing Forests, the Benefits of Bamboo

In Africa you want everything. You want firewood, you want to reduce erosion, to maintain the water supply, generate cash and employment. Bamboo comes the closest — it gives you the most things.

The need for firewood is now critical in Ethiopia; trees covered 35 percent of the country a century ago; by 2000 they covered just 3 percent.

Paradoxically, harvesting bamboo to make durable goods is greener than not harvesting bamboo.

While Rosenburg, who wrote the above New York Times blogpost, makes some interesting points, she misses one huge, gaping hole of an argument: planting bamboo plantations will overpower and undermine whatever remaining biodiversity persists in these growing semi-deserts. The same process already occurred with eucalyptus, but given the even more extensive root networks of bamboo, native tree species may be completely outcompeted, leaving a vast, bamboo-only landscape rather than the extremely diverse forests that Africa used to be known for (along with the associated ecosystem services that all those different species provided.)

Raising the IQs of “Dumb” Cities

After spending hours searching for books on green architecture (or even sustainability) in Paris at the Bibliothèque de la Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine yesterday (which, by the way, has an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower and Trocadero), and giving up largely in vain [because Paris just isn’t sustainable], I was happy to come across this gem of a project in the US.

CITE, or the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation, will be a small town built near Hobbs, New Mexico for research companies to test out green energy technologies, intelligent transport systems, first responder (homeland security) technology, and high-tech wireless infrastructure in real-life settings–just without having people to account for. As the article puts it, the developer (Pegasus) will stop just “shy of interior decorating.” Sounds to me like it could have the potential to become a new Silicon Valley hotbed of creativity!

Hobbs, NM in context (Courtesy of Google Maps)

That said…

CITE will intentionally be an imperfect place… “We’re a dumb city,” Brumley says, “and we bring smart technology to the dumb city, or the ‘legacy’ city, to see how its IQ can be elevated. If you think of it that way, 99.9 percent of all American cities are dumb–they’re all legacy.”

While I (and apparently many others) would have wanted to see a prototype for a smarter city rather than another “legacy” city modeled on Rock Hill, South Carolina, complete with suburbs, exurbs, and other forms of sprawl (which then perpetuates the existence of these “dumb” cities), CITE is still a start in the right direction (both in terms of economic development for the NM-Texas border region, and for the many technologies that are approaching or are stuck in the infamous “valley of death” before commercialization and larger-scale use by the public).

Night at the Museum (the Louvre)

Taken during the Nuit européenne des nuits (European Museum Night), when many, many museums all across Europe are open much later than normal operating hours, often with free admission to the general public. Unfortunately, “night” is meant only loosely, as most museums closed by 11:45 PM, with only the Centre de Pompidou (Paris’s main modern art museum) open until 1 AM. The shots above are from the inner courtyard of the Louvre (I didn’t make it there early enough to get inside).

Paris: Not the City of My Dreams

As a little girl, I had this whimsical idea that Paris was like Disneyland, except for grown-ups–particularly, grown-ups who loved romance and passion, culture and art, and were fairly creative and open-minded.

After the seven weeks I’ve now spent here, I can say without a doubt that this is at most 5 % true. I share the same streets as men who think it’s perfectly fine to urinate against a wall in public (and have been doing so for centuries without fail); as men who think it’s perfectly fine to shout sexual slurs at women walking down a street alone, as if that automatically makes her a prostitute; as men who step on you or push you while dancing and never think to apologize. Forgive me for having expected to live amongst an advanced civilization. No, instead I find people living in Paris who’ve never heard of Moldova, even though this is just past the edge of the European Union; people who unabashedly make assumptions about Americans and the British without having ever visited either country; people who call themselves socialists living in a country of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” while still holding onto extremely xenophobic views.

As for creative and open-minded: if there’s one thing that my class on Parisian architecture taught me, it’s that the French resist change, and hate foreign influence even more. Throughout Paris’s history, many of its most influential architects, ministers, and kings have pushed for a “French” style. The result: homogenous (“harmonious”), colorless (mostly limestone and blue roof tiles), classical and neo-classical style, no matter the arrondissement or its history. When architects like Hector Guimard tried something different and innovative, the French thought it was over-the-top. The result is a city that is far from romantic, even in the springtime (which just means rain and/or clouds 90% of the time.) It’s saying something that Paris is more romantic and colorful at night–the yellow street lamps and black surroundings result in more color than you’d see in the daytime.

(Further examples of non-open-mindedness: Music? French music must be on radio airwaves at least 40% of the time during prime hours. Wine? Nothing but French will do. (It’s also usually cheaper, possibly because of government subsidies.))

Yes, I still have pretty pictures from my time in Paris so far. Some hidden gems are the interior of the Opera Garnier, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, the Musée du Monde Arabe… and of course, the inside of Notre Dame. But will these spots of beauty overshadow the unpleasantries enough for me to want to live here? Probably not in the long term, though I’ll wait one month more to be certain.

Sunset along the Seine (the river that runs through Paris). Note how the clouds are more colorful than the surroundings; also note typical Parisian architecture of pierre (stone).

Inside Notre-Dame Cathedral (the smoke is from burning incense)

Inside Notre-Dame

Windows of the Institute du Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World) viewed from the inside. Easily one of the most innovative buildings and museums in Paris.

The Belvedere of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

The entrance of the Palais (Opéra) Garnier.

The ballroom of sorts in the Palais Garnier, somewhat similar to the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles–but more intimate, colorful, and interesting.

The opera theatre within the Palais Garnier. (Garnier understood color! Red and gold interior is much more colorful than the inside of many other performing arts spaces in Paris.) The ceiling was painted by Marc Chagall.

Giverny!

After weeks of seeing limestone upon limestone (not to mention rain every single day) in Paris, going to Giverny made me feel like a kid in a candy store–except the candy became flowers. There was just so much COLOR!!!

As a bit of context, Giverny is a small French town in Normandy, NW of Paris, where the painter Claude Monet spent most of his later years. I was extremely surprised by the house itself: it was relatively small, and infinitely more humble, than most French houses of people who were as wealthy and popular as he was by the end of his life, and especially given that he was born and raised in Paris. I had the impression that his biggest investments were his collection of Japanese prints and his garden. At any rate, it was interesting to see where such a well-known artist spent his life and gained inspiration.

The town itself was very bucolic–ivy everywhere, brick and green.

A view of Monet’s house from the gardens

These two looked almost like they were talking to each other

Walking towards the lily pond from Monet’s gardens

The lily pond!

The cheerful kitchen of Monet’s house (with Japanese prints on every wall, bien sûr)

The view from Monet’s bedroom window. I can’t really blame him for being inspired.

Auvergne — the Most Isolated Region of France

I’ve been meaning to post photos for some time from Istanbul, Barcelona, and Paris–all wonderful, beautiful, and ridiculous places in their own ways. But I’ll start with a much less well-known spot of Europe: the region of Auvergne, in central France, where I spent this past weekend. Many of the towns we visited were part of the Santiago de Compostela route in France–a holy pilgrimage for Christians that links to where St. James is believed to be buried, in NW Spain. One town that we drove through even seemed to be throwing its own medieval fair–everyone in the streets and in the shops was strangely minding their own business, as if their stockings, colorful dresses, and frocks were completely expected in the 21st century.

There is some truth to my growing suspicion that most medieval towns in Western Europe are very similar… nonetheless, this region still had its own flavors:

  • lace-making (which we learned was much more complex than previously thought),
  • the bright-green, surprisingly strong liquor called Verveine,
  • black foxes running along the highways,
  • the icy-cold rapids of the Loire, and
  • plenty of extinct volcanoes (Auvergne is in the heart of the Massif Central mountain range).

I’m also starting to think that they don’t care about diets like the Parisians do; the general population in Auvergne was of a healthier weight on average–perhaps partially because they were older, and central Paris’s population is much younger… The people of Auvergne (and particularly the staff of restaurants) were also thankfully friendlier than in Paris. 🙂

Auvergne in context

On the way to Auvergne

A view of Le Puy-en-Velay

The old (medieval) part of Le Puy-en-Velay

The very Roman, Moor-inspired Cathédrale de Nôtre-Dame at Le Puy-en-Velay

A view of the dyke and St Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel

Looking up at the Chapelle St Michel d'Aiguilhe from the stairs

The cloisters of the Abbaye Saint Georges, La Chaise-Dieu

A view of Château Lafayette from the chateau's lush gardens

Mustard fields near Clermont-Ferrand

Closed-Loop Industrial-Scale Composting Coming to a City Near You!

While not exactly a new concept, using earthworms to process food waste quickly and efficiently was taken to the next level by an Arizona-based start-up: http://seedstock.com/2012/04/18/in-feat-of-alchemy-phoenix-az-based-startup-transforms-food-waste-into-organic-produce-and-profit/

I have a few doubts about generating $1 million in annual profits, but if that’s really the case, VermiSoks is doing something right. I especially like their business approach of employing beneficiaries of food banks and homeless shelters and partnering with large hotels in the area. However, one of the unique points with VermiSoks’s method is using their fermented “worm wine” in combination with their earthworm-filled soil packets (the Soks), which may be an obstacle for people trying to do this in apartments and small houses (or in developing countries, for that matter), who don’t necessarily have the resources to pay for repeated shipments of the “wine,” which seems to act like a growth catalyst by supplying nutrients. (Though this would explain high profits from partnering with hotels and large grocery stores like Whole Foods, which can afford to pay for the “wine.”) At any rate, it’s a promising start, and a company (and business model) to watch out for.