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PRI’s The World is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. Launched in 1996, PRI’s The World, a co-production of WGBH/Boston, Public Radio International, and the BBC World Service.
The World's coverage is provided by a global network of international journalists. The program also has access to the 250 BBC correspondents located around the world. Unique in public radio, this network works in concert with the program's multinational team of producers and editors, and brings an exceptional depth of understanding and freshness of perspective to the program content. The result is an award-winning hour of breaking news, in-depth features, hard-hitting commentaries, and thought-provoking interviews found nowhere else in U.S. news coverage.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 1:10pm
It was a dinner conversation that got me thinking about elephants. I was speaking with Rachel Dwyer, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and she was telling me about her research.
She studies elephants in Bollywood movies.
“The definitive film for elephants in Indian cinema has to be ‘Haathi Mere Saathi,’ made in 1971” she says. “It was the biggest [Bollywood] hit up to that point.”
Haathi Mere Saathi, which means “Elephant, my Friend,” is about a boy and his four wild elephant companions who save him from a leopard. Instead of raising the boy in the forest Jungle Book-style, the elephants move to the city with him. Even after the boy grows up, they continue living with him, as his friends and protectors. At one point, the elephants even tow his girlfriend's car when it breaks down in the middle of nowhere.
It's a fairy tale, of course. After all, elephants don't willingly follow us back to cities and they don't run around solving our problems.
That said, India does have hundreds, if not thousands, of domesticated elephants.
“There's a huge culture behind captive elephants,” Dwyer says. “Elephants have been captured in India for well over 2000 years.”
And elephants have long been part of Indian culture. They appear in Hindu mythologies and in ancient Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, art work and literature, so Indians have great respect for the animals.
We associate elephants with intelligence, benevolence, devotion and even beauty. For example, the ancient Sanskrit term Gaja Gamini means "she who has the gait of an elephant," and was the title of a 2000 Bollywood film.
All this talk about elephants in India made me nostalgic about my childhood days in the small southern city of Mysore. I'd occasionally see the pachyderms ambling down narrow streets with their mahouts — their caretakers — on their backs. Most of these animals belonged to temples, some to the royal family of Mysore. Elephants were also the stars of an annual procession for a Hindu festival.
I was always excited to see them; they were awe inspiring and yet familiar. I imagine kids in other parts of the country had similar experiences.
“[You] used to see elephants in the cities,” Dwyer says. “They were brought in for weddings and for festivals.”
But as I'm learning now, that's changed in most places. Mysore still has enough elephants for its festivals, but it's become harder to spot an elephant in urban areas. Now, there are laws that restrict or ban owning elephants. The Asian elephant is an endangered species, its population down by 50 percent in the past few decades. The biggest threat to its survival is loss of habitat.
As India develops and we clear more forests to build roads, railways and farms, elephants and humans are increasingly coming into conflict.
“Hundreds of elephants and people are killed every year, elephants mown down by trains on railway tracks,” Dwyer says.
They’re also struck by cars, and killed for raiding agricultural fields.
I'm all for laws that aim to protect elephants. India’s increasingly crowded and polluted cities are no place for these beautiful and intelligent animals.
But I also worry about the flip side of this. If the only news we hear about elephants is about conflict, and if kids these days don't have the luxury of seeing these creatures on their streets — like I did — are we losing the part of our culture that teaches us to respect these animals and coexist with them?
If so, we're losing something precious.
Monday, December 9, 2013 3:11pm
Tech firms, like Apple, Google, Facebook and other heavy hitters, published an open letter to the White House and Congress Monday morning calling on them to stop the massive collection of data by the National Security Agency.
At the same time, though, news broke about the latest surveillance controversy. Spies, it turns out, come in mutant forms: gnomes, night elves or perhaps even a worgen.
That is, British and American intelligence agencies apparently infiltrated several online gaming worlds such as World of Warcraft and Second Life.
"The concern back in 2007, 2008, was that these worlds were unregulated and could be used as safe havens for someone who wanted to plant an attack," said journalist Mark Mazzetti who broke the story for the New York Times.
Intelligence agencies were concerned not only with the possibility that terrorist organizations might be using virtual platforms like World of Warcraft and Second Life as cover for covert communication, but also as a means of moving money.
"[World of Warcraft and Second Life] have their own currencies and the worry was that these currencies could be used to move money outside of normal financial regulations," Mazzetti said.
But many gaming and intelligence experts Mazzetti spoke with were rather skeptical of this imagined scenario.
"If you are a terrorist, this is not the safest place for you to be operating in," Mazzetti said.
The games are highly regulated by the gaming companies themselves, who pay close attention to game traffic and financial activities.
However, it seems there were so many agents playing and snooping on these games that they actually had to develop a "deconflict" system to identify each other because they were virtually bumping into each other.
It's unclear from the leaked documents what the spying actually uncovered — and whether or not the spying continues.
"I still have questions about exactly what they may have found out about these worlds, whether the terrorists were there or not," Mazzetti said.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013 2:57pm
You might remember a bicycle innovation from France a few decades ago — the Solex. It was a precursor to the moped.
I used to admire it... a bike that gave you the option to stop pedalling, but keep moving. One problem, though: it ran on gas. Not exactly environmentally friendly.
Decades later, technology to make cycling easier hasn't really grown beyond the Solex. But a group out of MIT may have come up with a big improvement.
It's not a new kind of bike. It's a new kind of wheel.
I just had my introduction to riding a bike with a Copenhagen Wheel. It's the result of many years, and many late nights, of R&D at Superpedestrian in Cambridge, just a couple of miles from The World's studios.
A prototype of the wheel debuted at the 2009 UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen. Copenhagen was already a bike-friendly city, but planners there wanted something that could get even more peope riding. That's where MIT came in. The answer was a self-contained, lithium-ion battery-powered motor in the rear wheel.
Imagine two fire engine-red Frisbees sandwiched together around the hub of the rear wheel, and you get a pretty good picture of the new device.
Jon Stevens, a vehicle control specialist at Superpedestrian, says everything you'd normally have for an electric bicycle was put inside their wheel.
"There's no external throttle," he says. "There's no external cables. All the sensors, all the batteries and the motor live inside this wheel. So you just put it on your bike like it's a wheel and you pedal it. And your bike's now this wonderful, magical, electrical bicycle."
The magic is actually the bicycle version of hybrid technology. The batteries recharge when you brake and when you pedal, storing energy for when you need it.
Everything is controlled by your smartphone, mounted on the handlebars. Wheel sensors also collect data on things like pollution levels and traffic congestion that can be shared with other riders.
So it's definitely easy to like. But it's not like you can walk into your local bike shop and get one. And even if you could, not everyone could afford it.
Four years after it was unveiled in Copenhagen, a limited number of the wheels went on sale this week at $699 a piece. The Superpedestrian website says the retail price will be $799 for those who don't get in on these early models.
Assaf Biderman, the founder of Superpedestrian, expects potential users will be won over by the wheel's aesthetics and the experience of riding it. Biderman says most electric bikes look clunky, and don't really feel like a bicyle.
"So we said, let's think of something that is really elegant that keeps the natural pure experience of riding. Just pedal," he says.
As a bike commuter, I get that.
Biderman is hoping potential bike commuters will, too. Those are the people who don't ride bikes because of their age, injuries, athletic shape or just because they don't want to come to work covered in sweat.
"If you can start to remove those barriers, then you've made a difference," he says. "So many of us have a bike sitting in our garage and we walk by them on the way to the car, even if we don't need to drive so far."
The Copenhagen wheel is just one way city planners and business people around the world are trying to create more choices for travel in cities. It's too early to say if this innovation will work the magic its inventors hope for.
But I do need a new wheel for my bike. And man, the Copenhagen wheel really is tempting.
Friday, November 29, 2013 12:13pm
What's an ecosystem worth — a swamp, a meadow, a bunch of trees? It can be hard to put a value on these kinds of places, which is why so many of them have been bulldozed and turned into things that have more obvious economic value.
But the residents of General MacArthur, a small Philippine community in the path of Super Typhoon Haiyan, probably wouldn't trade their mangrove trees for anything.
The town in Eastern Samar province is named after the American general who defeated the Japanese here in World War II. And now it has another memorable distinction: it largely survived the typhoon that just about leveled the nearby city of Tacloban.
And General MacArthur residents say they have their mangrove trees to thank.
Hundreds of buildings here were damaged by Haiyan’s powerful winds, and many wooden huts were entirely destroyed. But in the town’s public market, on a small bay that opens up into the Pacific Ocean, there’s no sign of the massive flooding that wreaked havoc elsewhere nearby.
Standing on the shore, resident Marianita Calbao says two dots of land about a half-mile out in the bay are part of the reason.
“The islands are there,” she says. “The mangrove area is there.”
MacArthur residents say they owe a lot to that sprawling patch of mangrove trees.
Mangroves form low-lying thickets that hug the shore of coastal areas in tropical regions around the world. They serve as natural barriers that help dissipate swelling storm surges. Mayor Jamie Ty says that protection, combined with a well-executed evacuation plan, meant not one person in MacArthur died in the typhoon.
“We are lucky” Ty says. “We don’t have casualties, although we have a few injuries. But those are just superficial injuries.’’
The storm killed at least 64 people in the next town to the north and more than 5,000 across the Philippines. It’s impossible to know how many of those deaths could have been avoided if other places still had the same natural protective barriers as General MacArthur.
Rough estimates show more than 70 percent of the country’s original mangrove forests were destroyed between 1918 and 1994. Many were replaced with fishponds, resorts and other kinds of coastal development.
But at least some of the mangroves near MacArthur were spared.
“Here, here, and here. The storm surge also hits here,” says University of the Philippines professor Rene Rollon, clicking his mouse over a satellite image of MacArthur and the surrounding islands.
Rollon has studied mangroves for more than 20 years, and he says MacArthur residents are right to thank their humble trees.
“That’s a huge amount of mangroves,” he says. “It dissipates a lot of energy. So, actually, it’s protecting the town.”
In fact many experts consider mangroves one of the best defenses against coastal flooding. That’s why MacArthur officials have designated their mangrove areas a local preservation site.
Many other coastal communities in the Philippines and elsewhere are now trying to replant mangroves from scratch, but experts say many rehabilitation projects here have been slow and poorly implemented. So, for now, MacArthur serves as a rare reminder of the value of natural systems, as the Philippines struggles to regain much of what the country lost to Haiyan.
With its healthy mangrove buffers, that struggle will be far less challenging in MacArthur, where volunteers unload bags of rice, canned meats and instant noodles into a storage room while a group of children plays nearby.
Food remains scarce, the power is still out, and it may take four to six months to repair all that was damaged. But Mayor Ty says he’s optimistic.
“Generally people are calm,” Ty says, “because as far as MacArthur people are concerned, we are all safe.’’
Friday, November 29, 2013 11:02am"The oyster beds around New York habor and New York Bay are almost all gone," he says. "Restoring them will make them part of a shallowing approach. These underwater barriers reduce the way waves and surges affect the land."After doing analysis of the whole Sandy affected region, the rebuilding efforts include restoring marsh lands, creating habitats and natural systems, reefs and plants to help reduce the power of waves and surges."This includes even building new islands which create new habitats and can reduce the surge by feet instead of inches," says OvinkSuch an approach doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on engineering projects like sea walls and levies. "Reality is very complex and requires a comprehensive approach, says Ovink."There’s no one silver bullet: it will be natural and manmade, it will be engineering and ecology."Ovink is utilizing on the experience in his homeland, the Netherlands. In 1953, the combination of a high spring tide and a severe windstorm over the North Sea caused a storm tide. It hit the Netherlands particularly hard, causing more than 1,800 deaths and widespread property damage.“That was our Sandy,” says Ovink “The response was a little too much on the engineering side, nowadays, the Dutch try to build a little more with nature. You need them both, to create a better and safer place.”And how is this Dutch approach being received in the US? “Pretty good so far," says Ovink. “It’s a complex process but we have a lot of collaboration across the board from government to community groups and funders."Ovink is sure, he will be able to convince people on the ground that it will be better for them and their children.“We will create a safer region to live and invest in."