Friday, January 25, 2013

991. Sound Pollution: A Growing Peril to Marine Life

By William Broad, The New York Times, December 10, 2012
A rare and endangered blue whale offshore near Long Beach, Calif.

When a hurricane forced the Nautilus to dive in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Captain Nemo took the submarine down to a depth of 25 fathoms, or 150 feet. There, to the amazement of the novel’s protagonist, Prof. Pierre Aronnax, no whisper of the howling turmoil could be heard.
 “What quiet, what silence, what peace!” he exclaimed.
That was 1870.
Today — to the dismay of whale lovers and friends of marine mammals, if not divers and submarine captains — the ocean depths have become a noisy place.
The causes are human: the sonar blasts of military exercises, the booms from air guns used in oil and gas exploration, and the whine from fleets of commercial ships that relentlessly crisscross the global seas. Nature has its own undersea noises. But the new ones are loud and ubiquitous.
Marine experts say the rising clamor is particularly dangerous to whales, which depend on their acute hearing to locate food and one another.
To fight the din, the federal government is completing the first phase of what could become one of the world’s largest efforts to curb the noise pollution and return the sprawling ecosystem to a quieter state.
The project, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seeks to document human-made noises in the ocean and transform the results into the world’s first large sound maps. The ocean visualizations use bright colors to symbolize the sounds radiating out through the oceanic depths, frequently over distances of hundreds of miles.
It is no small ambition: the sea covers more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface. But scores of the ocean visualizations have now been made public.
Several of the larger maps present the sound data in annual averages — demonstrating how ages in which humans made virtually no contribution to ocean noise are giving way to civilization’s roar.
The project’s goal is to better understand the cacophony’s nature and its impact on sea mammals as a way to build the case for reductions.
“It’s a first step,” Leila T. Hatch, a marine biologist and one of the project’s two directors, said of the sound maps. “No one’s ever done it on this scale.”
The began the effort in 2010 at the behest of Jane Lubchenco, a prominent marine biologist who is the first woman to head the agency. Dr. Hatch and her colleagues assembled a team of sound experts, including HLS Research, a consulting firm in La Jolla, Calif. This summer, they unveiled their results on the Web, as did a separate team of specialists that sought to map the whereabouts of populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises.
Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in New York that has sued the Navy to reduce sounds that can harm marine mammals, praised the maps as “magnificent” and their depictions of sound pollution as “incredibly disturbing.”
“We’ve been blind to it,” Mr. Jasny said in an interview. “The maps are enabling scientists, regulators and the public to visualize the problem. Once you see the pictures, the serious risk that ocean noise poses to the very fabric of marine life becomes impossible to ignore.”
Legal experts say the new findings are likely to accelerate efforts both domestically and internationally to deal with the complicated problem through laws, regulations, treaties and voluntary noise reductions.
The government already has some authority to regulate oceanic sound in United States waters through the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, though exemptions to these laws exist for the military.
The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations body responsible for improving marine safety and reducing ship pollution, also has the authority to set acoustic standards. In the past few years, encouraged by the United States, it began discussing how to achieve voluntary noise reductions.
Since many commercial vessels are registered abroad, and most shipping noises arise in international waters, the organization’s backing is seen as crucial for reductions to be substantial enough to have global repercussions.
“Right now we’re talking about nonbinding guidelines,” said Michael Bahtiarian, an adviser to the United States delegation to the maritime organization and a senior official at Noise Control Engineering, a company outside Boston that specializes in reducing ship noise and vibrations. “At a minimum, the goal is to stop the increases.”
The oceanic roar originates because of the remarkable — and highly selective — way in which different kinds of waves propagate through seawater. While sunlight can penetrate no more than a few hundred feet, sound waves can travel for hundreds of miles before diminishing to nothingness.
Sea mammals evolved sharp hearing to take advantage of sound’s reach and to compensate for poor visibility. The heads of whales and dolphins are mazes of resonant chambers and acoustic lenses that give the animals not only extraordinary hearing but complex voices they use to communicate.
In recent decades, humans have added raucous clatter to the primal chorus. Mr. Bahtiarian noted that the noise of a typical cargo vessel could rival that of a jet. Even louder, he added, are air guns fired near the surface from ships used in oil and gas exploration. Their waves radiate downward and penetrate deep into the seabed, helping oil companies locate hidden pockets of hydrocarbons.
Marine biologists have linked the human noises to reductions in mammalian vocalization, which suggests declines in foraging and breeding.
Worse, the Navy estimates that blasts from its sonars — used in training and to hunt enemy submarines — result in permanent hearing losses for hundreds of sea mammals every year and temporary losses for thousands. All told, annually the injured animals number more than a quarter million.
The federal sound study examined all these noises but zeroed in on commercial shipping because it represented a continuous threat, in contrast to sporadic booms. For North Atlantic shipping, the project drew up more than two dozen maps. All their scales went from red (115 decibels at the top) to orange and yellow, and then to green and blue (40 decibels at the bottom). The maps presented the results in terms of annual averages rather than peaks.
A decibel is a measure of noise, and peak levels underwater can be incredibly loud. When monitored by a hydrophone at a distance of one meter (about three feet), a seismic gun produces 250 decibels, an oil tanker 200 decibels and a tugboat 170 decibels, according to Mr. Bahtiarian.
To draw up its annual maps, the sound project used computers to average out such peaks over time, as well as to slowly diminish the noises as they traveled over the ocean’s vast reaches. The study also chose to model the low frequencies used by sea mammals for hearing and vocalization, and tracked how far the sounds penetrated.
Maps of the North Atlantic show mostly oranges in the upper waters, but many blues appear as the readings go downward as deep as one kilometer, or six-tenths of a mile. At that depth, the sound maps clearly show the ability of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge — a mountain chain that runs down the ocean’s middle — to diminish the radiating noises by breaking up patterns of sound waves.
Dr. Hatch, of the sound study, said too many areas of the ocean surface (where sea mammals and whales spend most of their time) are orange in coloration, denoting high average levels.
“It’s like downtown Manhattan during the day, only not taking into account the ambulances and the sirens,” she said. “I’d be happier saying it was like a national park.”
Vessels for fishing and research, including new ships being built for N.O.A.A., are already being quieted around the world. The trend derives not so much out of concern for sea mammals but from the realization by oceanographers that quiet ships let them do better science.
Marine engineers say the mechanics of ship quieting are relatively straightforward if applied in the design stage. The biggest factor is the ship’s propeller, which has to be shaped exactly right to lessen cavitation.
The noise arises when the force of a propeller cutting through seawater results in millions of voids and bubbles, which then collapse violently. Experts say quiet propellers have a benefit beyond helping sea mammals in that some kinds can reduce fuel consumption.
Other measures for quieting include adding layers of sound-absorbing tiles to the walls of noisy rooms as well as mounting engines, pumps, air compressors, and other types of reciprocating machinery on vibration isolators. Mr. Bahtiarian of Noise Control Engineering, who has written extensively on the topic in professional journals and for expert committees, noted that a parallel to ship quieting had been under way in the airline industry for decades. City officials and airport neighbors, as well as federal officials, have prodded the manufacturers of jet engines to find ways of reducing noise.
Experts note that the magnitude of the problem on land and sea is similar, in that the global fleets of commercial jets and ships both number in the tens of thousands. But designing better ships to quiet the ocean, Mr. Bahtiarian said, will take longer.
“A ship’s lifetime is 30 or even 50 years,” he noted, “so it could be a lot longer” before improved designs start transforming the fleet.
Still, Mr. Bahtiarian added, the quieting trend seems inevitable given the new reports about sound pollution and rising awareness about the dangers to whales, dolphins and other sea mammals.
“The technology is there,” he said. “It seems like it’s just a matter of time.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

990. On Costa Rica's Feria de Agricultor

By Jan Yatsko, Atenas Today, January 23, 2013

La feria in Atenas, Costa Rica

One of the best tourist spots in Costa Rica can be found in your “backyard” and at 81 other locations. It is a true cultural and social experience where Costa Ricans of all social classes come to hear the latest local news. It is a visual delight, an inspiration for artists and writers, held outdoors and it is free to the public. You can practice your Spanish, learn new words and sample something exotic. It constitutes one of the most important retail markets in Costa Rica where the majority of the products are made nationally. It is the feria de agricultor or nicknamed “la feria” and they are held on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday throughout Costa Rica.

The first feria began in 1979 in Zapote, a suburb of San Jose, to give small producers the opportunity to sell fresh quality products directly to the consumer. At a feria one can purchase not only fruits and vegetables, meat and cheese, but flowers and plants, clothing, shoes, homemade tortilla chips and fruit jellies, local artisan coffee, shopping bags made from recycled rice sacks, handmade baskets and a variety of prepared foods from bakery items and pupusas to a complete gallo pinto breakfast, all at prices less than those offered anywhere else. As you walk through the feria, listen to the words that the stand holders shout to get a customer’s attention. “Lleva mango, lleva cebolla (onion), lleva flores (flowers)” as they tell you to take home their particular product. “Solo bueno” means that only the best products are sold to you. When a customer says “regaleme una ...” (give me a...) you are in business, but when a customer says “ahora pasamos” (we’ll come by later) that is a polite way of saying “no, thanks”.

The feria has something that the supermarkets cannot offer to its customers. It is very often one of the aspects that visitors to Costa Rica comment on and what we are losing in the US and Canada. The feria provides the homey atmosphere where people connect with each other and form relationships, not only with their friends, but with the merchants who produced the product. Familial type relationships are formed between the producer and the customer and frequently an extra product is placed in your shopping bag or a special order is no problem.
The ferias employ over 7,000 vendors (2010 census) which economically support even more people. A phenomenon is occurring right now in Costa Rica that happened 20 years ago in the US. Consumers are being lured to Pricesmart, Walmart and other big stores with the false idea that all prices are lower. Local small businesses suffer. However, the “Buy Local” campaign has raised the consciousness of the consumers up north and it is now ecological, healthy for the local economy and good for your health to purchase products close to home. Continue the “Buy Local” practice in Costa Rica and purchase as many products as you can in your home area. Support the ferias for they not only provide a vital retail market for the local economy, but they continue a social and cultural tradition.

There are three local ferias for you to choose from: Atenas on Friday morning; Grecia on Friday afternoon/evening and Saturday morning and Alajuela on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. If you are traveling through Costa Rica and would like to know if a feria exists in a certain area, please contact me at

I thank Ronald Morales at Consejo Nacional de Producción for providing statistical information about the ferias.

989. Global Warming: How High Could the Tide Go?

By Justin Gillis, The New York Times, January 21, 2013

PREHISTORIC SHORELINES Researchers explored ancient rock formations on South Africa’s coast. They are looking for critical clues from records of past climate change to help predict sea level rise in a warming world. Photo: Justin Gillis

BREDASDORP, South Africa — A scruffy crew of scientists barreled down a dirt road, their two-car caravan kicking up dust. After searching all day for ancient beaches miles inland from the modern shoreline, they were about to give up.

Suddenly, the lead car screeched to a halt. Paul J. Hearty, a geologist from North Carolina, leapt out and seized a white object on the side of the road: a fossilized seashell. He beamed. In minutes, the team had collected dozens more.
Using satellite gear, they determined they were seven miles inland and 64 feet above South Africa’s modern coastline.
For the leader of the team, Maureen E. Raymo of Columbia University, the find was an important clue as she tries to determine just how high the oceans might rise in a warmer world.
The question has taken on new urgency in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which caused coastal flooding that scientists say was almost certainly worsened by the modest rise of sea level over the past century. That kind of storm tide, the experts say, could become routine along American coastlines by late in this century if the ocean rises as fast as they expect.
In previous research, scientists have determined that when the earth warms by only a couple of degrees Fahrenheit, enough polar ice melts, over time, to raise the global sea level by about 25 to 30 feet. But in the coming century, the earth is expected to warm more than that, perhaps four or five degrees, because of human emissions of greenhouse gases.
Experts say the emissions that may make a huge increase of sea level inevitable are expected to occur in just the next few decades. They fear that because the world’s coasts are so densely settled, the rising oceans will lead to a humanitarian crisis lasting many hundreds of years.
Scientists say it has been difficult to get people to understand or focus on the importance, for future generations, of today’s decisions about greenhouse gases. Their evidence that the gases represent a problem is based not just on computerized forecasts of the future, as is commonly believed, but on what they describe as a growing body of evidence about what occurred in the past.
To add to that body of knowledge, Dr. Raymo is studying geologic history going back several million years. The earth has warmed up many times, for purely natural reasons, and those episodes often featured huge shifts of climate, partial collapse of the polar ice sheets and substantial increases in sea level.
“I wish I could take people that question the significance of sea level rise out in the field with me,” Dr. Raymo said. “Because you just walk them up 30 or 40 feet in elevation above today’s sea level and show them a fossil beach, with shells the size of a fist eroding out, and they can look at it with their own eyes and say, ‘Wow, you didn’t just make that up.’ ”
Skeptics who play down the importance of global warming like to note that these past changes occurred with no human intervention. They argue that the climate is ever-changing, yet humans or their predecessors managed to prosper.
The geologic record does offer startling examples of the instability of the planet. Whale bones can be dug up in the Sahara. The summit of Mount Everest is a chunk of ancient seafloor.
But most climate scientists reject the idea that this history means human-induced climate change will be benign. They add that the fossil record indicates nothing quite like today’s rapid release of greenhouse gases and its parallel effect of raising the planet’s temperature, changes that are occurring in a geologic instant.
“Absolutely, unequivocally, nature has changed before,” said Richard B. Alley, a leading climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “But it looks like we’re going to do something bigger and faster than nature ever has.”
Clues From Fossils
In any given era, the earth’s climate responds to whatever factors are pushing it to change.
Scientists who study climate history, known as paleoclimatologists, focus much of their research on episodes when wobbles in the earth’s orbit caused it to cool down or warm up, causing sea level to rise or fall by hundreds of feet.
Carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, appears to have played a crucial role. When changes in the orbit caused the earth to cool, scientists say, a large amount of carbon dioxide entered the ocean, reducing the heat-trapping properties of the atmosphere and thus amplifying the cooling. Conversely, when the shifts in sunlight led to initial warming, carbon dioxide emerged from the ocean and helped speed the end of the previous ice age.
Based on this record, scientists like Dr. Alley describe carbon dioxide as the master control knob of the earth’s climate. A large body of scientific evidence shows that the current increase in the gas is being caused by human activity, meaning that people are essentially twisting the earth’s thermostat hard to the right.
In most of the previous warm periods, some ice remained near the poles, in Greenland and Antarctica. Today, enough water is stored as ice in those regions to raise the level of the ocean roughly 220 feet, should all of it melt.

The fossil record suggests that temperatures slightly warmer than today would not be enough to melt the ice caps entirely. But an increase of even a few degrees Fahrenheit in the average global temperature does appear to cause severe damage. From the last time that happened, about 120,000 years ago, scientists have found more than a thousand elevated fossil beaches around the world.

Many scientists believe that, as a result of human-induced warming, temperatures are already entering the danger zone. They are seeing rapid changes in Greenland and western Antarctica.
“I can merely tell you that every time in recent earth history where we’ve had these kinds of temperatures for any protracted period of time, two polar ice sheets have catastrophically collapsed,” said Jerry X. Mitrovica, an earth physicist at Harvard who collaborates with Dr. Raymo.
Dr. Raymo works at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University just outside New York City. Like many of her colleagues, she is trying to run the movie of the earth’s history in reverse, finding an era with temperatures that mirror those expected before 2100.
She has zeroed in on the Pliocene epoch, roughly three million years ago. The level of carbon dioxide in the air then appears to have been about 400 parts per million — a level that will be reached again within the next few years, after two centuries of fossil fuel burning.
Previous efforts to estimate the maximum rise of the sea in the Pliocene did not take full account of some factors now known to be important.
In Search of Prehistoric Beaches
Two years ago, in hopes of pinning down a better answer, Dr. Raymo pitched an ambitious plan to the National Science Foundation, the federal agency that pays for much of the country’s scientific research. She proposed to pull together a worldwide network of expert collaborators: to find, date and measure Pliocene beaches on nearly every continent and then to work with experts in computer modeling to take careful account of all the factors known to alter sea level.
The N.S.F. awarded the group $4.2 million, with one anonymous scientific reviewer declaring that the plan would permit a “far more precise and quantitative prediction of future climate change.”
This summer, Dr. Raymo and her team drove hundreds of miles along South Africa’s southern and western coasts, scouting for prehistoric beaches.
To collect ancient seashells for laboratory testing, they hiked treacherous paths and descended into old quarries and diamond mines. At one point an Australian researcher, Michael J. O’Leary, and an Italian colleague, Alessio Rovere, climbed a steep cliff face to take measurements, clinging to shrubs as their feet kept slipping.
The team located suspected Pliocene beaches as low as 38 feet and as high as 111 feet above modern sea level. In similar work in Australia and on the East Coast of the United States, the researchers have found Pliocene beaches as low as 33 feet and as high as 295 feet above sea level.
Part of the explanation for such varying elevations, Dr. Raymo said, is that the land itself has almost certainly moved over the last three million years, unevenly — thus raising or lowering beach deposits after they had been laid down.
Scientists have come to realize this can happen anywhere in the world, even far from geological hot spots, a major factor complicating their interpretation of past sea level. “A lot of the big task we have is teasing apart this dance that the crust of the earth is doing with the level of the sea,” Dr. Raymo said.
Over the next few years, her team plans to gather new measurements from most continents, including North America, where the Pliocene ocean encroached as far as 90 miles inland. After several years of work, they hope to arrive at the magic number Dr. Raymo calls Pliomax, or the maximum global sea level rise during the Pliocene.
That figure may help to solve a vexing scientific problem.
A large body of evidence suggests that the ice sheets atop Greenland and the low-lying, western part of Antarctica are vulnerable to global warming. But together, they can supply no more than about 40 feet of sea level rise.
The previous estimates of Pliocene sea level, based on spotty evidence, range from 15 feet to 130 feet above today’s ocean, with 80 feet being a commonly cited figure. If Dr. Raymo’s work were to confirm such a high estimate, it would suggest that the ice sheet in eastern Antarctica — by far the biggest chunk of ice in the world, containing enough water to raise sea level by 180 feet — is also vulnerable to melting. And if it is, scientists do not fully understand why, because their computer forecasts — acknowledged to be imperfect — suggest most of it should remain stable even in a warmer world.
“Just the mere fact that we know the number will tell us right off the bat, is East Antarctica stable?” Dr. Raymo said. “Or is it a huge risk?”
Thus, if the project is successful, it may put an upper limit on how much the ocean is ultimately capable of rising if temperatures go up as much as expected this century.
But the Pliomax project will not be able to answer what might be an even bigger question: In a worst-case scenario, how fast could the rise happen?
Dr. Raymo and her team share an emerging scientific consensus that the increase in this century will probably be on the order of three feet, perhaps as much as six feet. That would almost certainly require millions of people to evacuate coastal regions.
Calculations by Climate Central, a research group, suggest that once the ocean has risen five feet, storm tides comparable to those of Hurricane Sandy could occur about every 15 years in New York City.
Scientists say that in the 22nd century, the problem would probably become far worse, and the rise would then continue for many centuries, perhaps thousands of years. Recent research suggests the likely rise could be 12 feet by the year 2300, inundating coastal regions around the world.
If the rise is slower than expected, society may have time to adjust, or to develop new technology to solve the problem of greenhouse emissions. But many scientists are plagued by a nagging fear that the opposite will occur — that their calculations will turn out to have been too conservative, and social stability will eventually be threatened by a rapid rise of the sea.
“At every point, as our knowledge increases,” Dr. Raymo said, “we’ve always discovered that the climate system is more sensitive than we thought it could be, not less.”

988.National Institute of Health Moves to Retire Most Chimps Used in Research

An NIH chimp in cage

By James Gorman, The New York Times, January 22, 2013

Almost all of the 451 chimpanzees owned or supported by the National Institutes of Health that are now at research facilities should be permanently retired from research and moved to sanctuaries, with planning for the move to start immediately, a report from an N.I.H. council unanimously recommended Tuesday.

The report, approved by the N.I.H. Council of Councils, is the latest step in a process that began more than two years ago when the agency began to review its use of chimpanzees in research. Its recommendations will be open to public comment for 60 days, and in late March, Dr. Francis S. Collins, the N.I.H. director, will decide whether to put them into effect.
He already accepted guidelines for reducing the use of chimpanzees that formed the basis of the current recommendations.
Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research of the Humane Society of the United States, said: “We are very pleased with these recommendations. Importantly, they did not recommend future breeding.”
The report says that for the future, only a small colony of about 50 chimps should be kept for the possibility of new research, which would have to be approved by an independent committee, including representation from the public.
Of the 451 N.I.H. chimps, 282 are available for research and 169 are considered inactive but are not permanently retired. An additional 219 chimpanzees owned or supported by the agency are already retired and are either at a sanctuary or headed for one. About 350 more chimps at research laboratories are owned by universities or private companies, according to the Humane Society.
The report also proposes standards for the social and physical welfare of N.I.H. chimps, including requirements that they live in groups of at least seven, have a minimum of 1,000 square feet per chimp, room to climb, access to the outdoors in all weather and opportunities to forage for food. “Not a single laboratory in the United States meets these recommendations,” Ms. Conlee said.
Within five years, at the latest, any N.I.H. chimpanzees that are approved for use in research will need to have housing that meets the new criteria.
Justin Goodman, the laboratory investigations department director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, issued a statement supporting the recommendations, saying, in part, “At last, our federal government understands: a chimpanzee should no more live in a laboratory than a human should live in a phone booth.”
Dr. K. C. Kent Lloyd of the University of California, Davis, a co-chairman of the working group that prepared the report, said in a hearing Tuesday that was streamed online that his group made field trips to seven chimpanzee facilities, including laboratories and sanctuaries.
He said the group was asked to consider what living conditions were appropriate for chimpanzees, the species closest to humans and highly intelligent and social. Even if experiments are approved in the future as being necessary for human health and undoable in any other way than using chimps, he said the animals must have “environments that not only allow but promote the full range of natural chimp behavior.”
That means room for social groups, and, Dr. Lloyd added, “No chimp should live alone for an extended period of time.”
The report recommends canceling six of nine current biomedical research projects that involve immunology and infectious agents. The report does not specify the nature of the research, but one of the few areas where some scientists consider chimp use important is in work on hepatitis C because no other animals provide a useful model for research, which involves infecting the chimps with the virus.
In less invasive research on behavior and genetics, 15 projects were approved or conditionally approved to continue and six projects ended.
The report also offers a plan for the independent committee to evaluate future research proposals, based on the guidelines proposed in December 2011 by the Institute of Medicine, which emphasized that human health must be at issue and that there must be no other way to do the research.
Tuesday’s recommendations come in the midst of efforts on several fronts to end experiments on chimpanzees, including a bill to stop experimentation on all great apes, which did not pass in the last Congress, but which proponents hope to reintroduce, and a pending decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service on whether captive chimps should be considered endangered, as wild chimps are.
The process that led to the recommendations began in December 2010, when the N.I.H. decided to rethink its use of chimps in medical experiments and asked for a report from the Institute of Medicine. That group concluded that most current research on chimpanzees was not necessary and that chimps should be used only when public health is on the line, no other animals are appropriate and ethical experiments on humans are not possible.
Dr. Collins suspended new grants for medical research on chimpanzees and sought further guidance on how to implement the recommendations. For that he turned to the N.I.H. Council of Councils, which set up the working group, which delivered its report on Tuesday.

987. Cuba: The "Resale" Economy

Cuba vendor 01 22 2013
A Havana vendor selling bread

By Nick Miroff, Global Post, January 23, 2013

HAVANA, Cuba — Cracker Man’s cry echoes down the streets of Havana's Buena Vista neighborhood, trailed by the clatter of his shopping cart over potholes.
“Crackers! Crackers!” he barks. “Fresh from the oven!”
He’s one of roughly 400,000 Cubans now working as state-licensed entrepreneurs in the communist country's small but growing private sector.
Cracker Man, as he’s known in the neighborhood (“el Galletero”), sells his product for about $1 a bag. He doesn’t make the crackers, but buys them from the state-owned bakery.
He’s what Cubans refer to as a “revendedor,” a reseller who buys scarce state-subsidized items from government stores to sell at a mark-up.
That’s made many people here angry. Complaints abound in the “letters to the editor” section of Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper Granma, where resellers are disparaged as parasites and good-for-nothing speculators whose main contribution to the economy is to make basic products more expensive for everyone.
They’re also entirely the creation of Cuba's new halfway capitalism.
Raul Castro’s recent reforms — the government calls them “updates” — have provided a place for market forces to exist alongside the centrally planned, state-controlled economy. Cubans have been granted new opportunities to become tradesman, DVD vendors, pizza makers and licensed small-scale retailers whose tiny shops and stalls have bloomed along Cuba’s main streets and thoroughfares.
Other entrepreneurs navigate pushcarts through the streets as itinerant peddlers, hawking goods under the hot Caribbean sun.
The government wants the private commerce to stimulate Cuba’s moribund economy and substitute costly imports. But experts say the authorities have yet to take the next necessary step: allowing entrepreneurs to innovate and manufacture their own products.
Cracker Man, for instance, has nowhere to buy the kind of industrial ovens, bakery equipment and wholesale supplies he’d need to make crackers. Shipping those items from abroad would trigger steep import duties, never mind the logistical obstacles.
“We still haven't created the mechanisms for a productive economy,” says economist Julio Diaz Vazquez, a Soviet-trained expert on China and Vietnam's so-called market socialism. He criticizes the government for wanting to encourage entrepreneurship while tightly controlling it through an obtuse bureaucratic regulatory system.
He believes that’s a lost cause. “You can't play games with the market,” he says.
The authorities say they want to sharply reduce the number of Cubans working in low-paid, unproductive government jobs by moving them into cooperatives and small-scale private businesses.
They’re setting up pilot programs to convert state-run enterprises into worker-managed cooperatives, and have expanded the range of occupations for which Cubans are allowed to obtain self-employment licenses.
But the list remains very small, with fewer than 200 officially sanctioned professions from which Cubans can choose, including obscure jobs such as “party planner” and “palm-tree pruner.”
Not the kind of thing to lift millions out of poverty or free Cuba from having to import soap, snack foods and other bare necessities on which the government spends billions of dollars abroad while its own state-run manufacturing sector withers.
Many of the newly licensed entrepreneurs sell hardware-store items and household essentials such as bleach and dishwashing detergent. As their stalls have proliferated, many of the items they sell are disappearing from state stores because private vendors are rushing to buy up supplies.
The government says it’s working to set up wholesale markets to supply the new businesses, but it has yet to do so, with a few exceptions. The authorities seem nowhere close to allowing island residents to invest in the kind of infrastructure that could help give rise to private manufacturing and industry.
Until that happens, economists say, resale economics will continue to rule.
In one area of Havana known as the La Copa, private vendors offer plumbing supplies and other items not available in the state-owned hardware store next door.
Some of their goods are imported while others — such as crudely fashioned pipe fittings — are made on the island. Like most everywhere else, the rest are bought in government-owned stores.
The vendors respond to criticism about selling state-manufactured goods at higher prices saying that as long as they can show receipts proving they acquired the items legally, there’s nothing illegal about reselling them.
“I’m providing a service to my clients and to the government,” says Yormani Alayu, a plumbing-supply vendor who says he pays taxes and goes to great lengths to acquire scarce materials. He points to several rolls of flexible plastic tubing that would be nearly impossible to find in state-run stores.
“These are from Las Tunas,” he says of a city more than 400 miles from Havana.
One customer, Tania Alvarez, says she appreciates personal attention from private vendors, in contrast to the poorly paid clerks at government stores who are often indifferent toward shoppers, if not surly.
“I also appreciate the convenience,” she adds. “I don’t have to go all over town to look for these things.” She says she doesn’t mind paying slightly more.
Other resellers says they’re adding value to products they acquire from state stores.
A 21-year-old hardware vendor named Moises Amador points to colorful rum bottles on his table filled with different kinds of paint, each labeled with instructions. The paint is sold by the gallon in government stores, he explains, but often clients don’t need to buy that much. “And not everyone can afford a whole gallon,” he adds.
“I’m providing a service,” he says somewhat defensively. “I make my own labels and print them. I buy the bottles from a recycler. It’s an investment I make.”
Despite the controversy about them, the new business licenses do appear to be sparking some degree of industriousness.
Vendor Jose Bueno says he’s been making and selling shoes for 20 years, first with a license, then on the black market, and now with a license again.
“Almost everything you see here was made in Cuba,” he said about rows of leather loafers, brand-less sneakers and elaborately decorated women’s flats.
“These are good shoes, with the right materials for our climate,” he added, holding up a pair of $50 leather wingtips. “Not like those synthetic ones from China.”
Acquiring the leather, fabric and other materials was another matter, however. Most had to be brought in from abroad or purchased on the black market.
“But at least I’m still manufacturing something,” he says. “There’s nothing speculative about that.” 

Friday, January 18, 2013

986. Deafness at Doomsday

By Lawrence M. Krause, The New York Times, January 15, 2013
Regional nuclear war can lead to worldwide destruction
Tempe, Arizona--TO our great peril, the scientific community has had little success in recent years influencing policy on global security. Perhaps this is because the best scientists today are not directly responsible for the very weapons that threaten our safety, and are therefore no longer the high priests of destruction, to be consulted as oracles as they were after World War II.
The problems scientists confront today are actually much harder than they were at the dawn of the nuclear age, and their successes more heartily earned. This is why it is so distressing that even Stephen Hawking, perhaps the world’s most famous living scientist, gets more attention for his views on space aliens than his views on nuclear weapons.Scientists’ voices are crucial in the debates over the global challenges of climate change, nuclear proliferation and the potential creation of new and deadly pathogens. But unlike in the past, their voices aren’t being heard.
Indeed, it was Albert Einstein’s letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, warning of the possibility that Hitler might develop a nuclear weapon, that quickly prompted the start of the Manhattan Project, the largest scientific wartime project in history. Then, in 1945, the same group of physicists who had created the atomic bomb founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to warn of the dangers of nuclear weapons, and to promote international cooperation to avoid nuclear war. As Einstein said in May 1946, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
The men who built the bomb had enormous prestige as the greatest physics minds of the time. They included Nobel laureates, past and future, like Hans A. Bethe, Richard P. Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Ernest O. Lawrence and Isidor Isaac Rabi.
In June 1946, for instance, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had helped lead the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., argued that atomic energy should be placed under civilian rather than military control. Within two months President Harry S. Truman signed a law doing so, effective January 1947.
Today, nine nuclear states have stockpiled perhaps 20,000 nuclear weapons, many of which dwarf the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet proliferation is as alarming as ever, even though President Obama signed, and Congress ratified, the new strategic arms-reduction treaty in 2010. Iran’s nuclear program could lead to conflict. So could the animosity between India and Pakistan, which both have nuclear weapons.
The United States is complicit, because whatever our leaders may say, our actions suggest that we have no real intention to disarm. The United Nations adopted the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban countries from testing nuclear weapons, in 1996. But it has not come into force; the Senate rejected ratification in 1999, and while President Obama has promised to obtain ratification, he has not shown enough urgency in doing so.
What’s striking is that today’s version of the Manhattan Project scientists — not the weapons researchers at our maximum-security national laboratories, but distinguished scientific minds at our research universities and other national labs — provide advice that is routinely ignored.
Last year, the National Academy of Sciences published a report demonstrating that all the technical preconditions necessary for ratifying the United Nations treaty were in place. But this vital issue did not come up in the presidential campaign and is barely mentioned in Washington. Another study by the academy last year, on flaws in America’s costly ballistic missile defense program, has had little impact even as the Pentagon considers cuts in military spending.
I am co-chairman of the board of sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has supported the call for a world free of nuclear weapons — a vision backed by major foreign policy figures in both parties. But ideological biases have become so ingrained in Washington that scientific realities are subordinated to political intransigence.
Do scientists need to develop new doomsday tools before our views are again heard? Will climate researchers remain voiceless unless they propose untested geoengineering technologies that could have insidious consequences? Will biologists be heard only if their work spawns new biotechnologies that could be weaponized?
Because the threat of nuclear proliferation is not being addressed, because missile defense technologies remain flawed and because new threats exposed by scientists have been ignored, the Bulletin’s annual Doomsday clock — which was updated on Tuesday — still sits at five minutes to midnight. The clock is meant to convey the threats we face not only from nuclear weapons, but also from climate change and the potential unintended consequences of genetic engineering, which could be misused by those seeking to create bioweapons.
Until science and data become central to informing our public policies, our civilization will be hamstrung in confronting the gravest threats to its survival.
Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, is the author, most recently, of “A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing.”