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June 23, 2006

Doomsday Vault

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It will be located on the Svalbard archipelago, Norwegian territory above the Arctic Circle some 600 miles from the North Pole.

It's not for people but, rather, for seeds: three million samples, to be precise.

"It will serve as the repository of last resort if seed collections elsewhere... fail," wrote Henry Fountain in the June 20 New York Times Science section.

Odd, I thought, that the Times only gave it around 300 words while the Washington Post put Rick Weiss's story on the front page and continued it at length inside.

Here's the June 19 Post article.

    The World's Agricultural Legacy Gets A Safe Home

    Vault on Arctic Isle Would Protect Seeds

    The high-security vault, almost half the length of a football field, will be carved into a mountain on a remote island above the Arctic Circle. If the looming fences, motion detectors and steel airlock doors are not disincentive enough for anyone hoping to breach the facility's concrete interior, the polar bears roaming outside should help.

    The more than 100 nations that have collectively endorsed the vault's construction say it will be the most secure facility of its kind in the world. Given the stakes, they agree, nothing less would do.

    Its precious contents? Seeds -- millions and millions of them -- from virtually every variety of food on the planet.

    Crop seeds are the source of human sustenance, the product of 10,000 years of selective breeding dating to the dawn of agriculture. The "doomsday vault," as some have come to call it, is to be the ultimate backup in the event of a global catastrophe -- the go-to place after an asteroid hit or nuclear or biowarfare holocaust so that, difficult as those times would be, humankind would not have to start again from scratch.

    Once just a dream -- albeit a dark one, attractive only in comparison to the nightmare that would precede its use -- this planetary larder is about to become a reality. Today, on the barren Norwegian outpost of Svalbard, the prime ministers of five nations and a small throng of other officials will lay the cornerstone for what will be, in effect, the Fort Knox of seeds.

    "We will have the biological foundation for all of agriculture, which is really saying something," said Cary Fowler, executive secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the international organization coordinating the vault's creation with the Norwegian government. "It is a stunning achievement, if you think about it, and it would be about as safe as human beings can make it."

    If progress continues during the short building season this summer and next, the high-tech cavern will start accepting deposits from smaller seed banks and agricultural and scientific organizations by fall 2007 under the terms of an international treaty that took effect two years ago.

    Then, with a loud clank and the sound of sucking air, the door will close. And the Svalbard International Seed Vault will slip into a subzero slumber -- an insurance policy for human civilization.

    Scientists estimate there are 2 million varieties of plants used for food and forage today. That includes an astonishing 100,000 varieties of rice, the major staple of the human diet, and more than 1,000 varieties of banana, a nutritious fruit of global importance.

    Seeds from these crops, which can be smaller than poppy seeds and as large as coconuts, are invaluable repositories of plant DNA. They are the raw material that farmers and researchers rely on to develop more productive and nutritious plants that can cope with climate change, new diseases or pests.

    About 1,400 seed banks already exist, including large national collections in the United States and China; international ones maintained by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), funded by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations; and small ones at universities and research labs. Seeds are typically stored at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, and are periodically removed and germinated to grow plants, whose fresh seeds are redeposited.

    But only a few dozen of these banks meet international standards, and even fewer have funding commitments that ensure their long-term maintenance. Indeed, recent surveys have revealed a slow-motion seed bank disaster in the making, with many collections seeing germination rates well below the internationally agreed upon minimum of 85 percent.

    Worse, some seed banks have recently been destroyed, the victims of war and unrest in Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda and a reminder of the fragility of these resources. A backup bank could resupply regional banks like those.

    Perhaps most important, most of today's seed banks are designed to be working banks -- their contents available to breeders and researchers. That means they are inherently accessible and less than totally secure.

    "Svalbard is meant to be the bank of last resort," said Pat Mooney, executive director of ETC Group, a Canadian civil society organization focused on food security. "It's where you go if you can't go anywhere else. It's the backup for the whole world."

    The design, described in a recently released feasibility study, bespeaks that Armageddon mentality. First, there is the location: The starkly beautiful and always frozen terrain of Svalbard is, to say the least, off the beaten track. Home mostly to a small community of scientists, coal miners and support staff, it is the northernmost place in the world with scheduled commercial air service.

    Arctic foxes, reindeer and polar bears stroll the streets.

    Yet it also has the basic infrastructure that's needed, including a modest network of roads and an electrical generating plant fed by local coal.

    Plans call for a cavern about 50 yards long, 15 feet wide and 15 feet high. Although it will be built in solid rock, its floor, ceiling and walls will be lined with three-foot-thick layers of high-quality insulating concrete. The door will be opened only once or twice a year, to check contents and add new varieties.

    Air handling equipment will bring in outdoor air during the winter months, when temperatures hover around minus 30 degrees. Refrigeration units will be available to keep interior temperatures cold during Svalbard's summer, though scientists expect the equipment will rarely be needed and no one will panic if it occasionally breaks down.

    "Even if you waited a couple of years for the serviceman to show up, it won't really matter," quipped Geoffrey Hawtin, a genetic resource specialist based in England who is serving as a senior adviser to the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

    "One hears so much about mammoth skeletons and that sort of thing being preserved in the permafrost," Hawtin said. "But this is the first deliberate attempt to use the permafrost to conserve what must be humanity's most important but least-known resource."

    The Norwegian government is paying for the facility's construction -- an estimated $3 million, with about half of that for the concrete alone, which must be shipped. After that, annual operating expenses are expected to be $200,000 at first, dropping to $100,000 by year three. The trust has established an endowment that so far has $50 million of the $260 million that will be needed to sustain operations without depleting its principal. Contributions have come from about a dozen countries as well as foundations, seed companies and others.

    The vault is one of many strategies being implemented in sync with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which came into force in 2004 and has been ratified by more than 100 nations. The United States has signed the treaty, but the Senate has not ratified it. At the first meeting of the treaty's governing board last week in Madrid, representatives agreed on crucial legal language that will allow nations to maintain essential patent protections while freely sharing their seeds -- an achievement that participants said will greatly facilitate nations' willingness to donate to the Svalbard vault.

    Already, Fowler said, CGIAR has promised to contribute samples from its huge network of banks, which hold about 600,000 varieties. And the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the nation's largest seed collection in Fort Collins, Colo., will add holdings that are not in the CGIAR collection, he said.

    Seeds will be sealed in aluminum foil and stored in batches averaging 500 per package, depending on seed size. The facility is designed to hold 3 million varieties, assuming an average seed size equal to that of a wheat seed.

    Planners had to consider what would happen if global warming continues unabated. Computer models suggest that no matter what, Svalbard will be one of the coldest places on Earth, Fowler said.

    And if, as some models predict, global warming shuts down the Gulf Stream and turns the Greenland Sea into a place even more frozen than it is now? It will still be easy enough to keep the door clear of snow, according to the analysis.

    Hope Shand, research director at ETC Group, which champions farmers' rights, emphasized that banks such as Svalbard's are just one part of the global effort to conserve plant genetic resources.

    "Ultimately," Shand said, "it's the farmers who grow these crops who are the true custodians of crop diversity."

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That's nice and all, that there'll be all those seeds there after we blow ourselves to kingdom come — but who's going to plant them?

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Oh, OK — you've got it covered.

June 23, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Camouflage Cordless Phone

Useuse

Just the thing for talking about secret stuff.

Now you can blend right in and hide in plain sight.

The best feature: 10 different game call rings — see if your ringtones can do that.

From the website-not-sight:

    Motorola Camo Cordless Phone

    Dependable communication in a compact camouflaged package for any outdoor-themed room in your house, camp or cabin.

    Ten game call rings plus a ring tone will enliven the room and announce your passion for the outdoors to visitors.

    Game call rings include: Duck Quack, Bear Growl, Turkey, Cougar Growl, Elk Bugle, Canada Goose, Coyote Howl, Red Tail Hawk, Owl Hoots , Loon Wail.

    Caller ID and visual call waiting help you weed out courtesy calls and undesired interruption, and you'll enjoy great range and audio performance with 2.4 GHz technology.

    The exceptional battery life lets you talk for up to six hours or leave the phone off the charger for up to six days.

    Comes with a belt clip and is headset capable for convenient, neck-saving hands-free use.

    Last-number redial and 10 Speed Dial locations make it a cinch to reach your frequent contacts.

    Audible and visual low-battery alerts tell you when it's time to recharge.

    Page button helps you keep track of the phone in case the Realtree™ Hardwoods HD® pattern blends in a little too well.

    Mounts on the wall or on a desktop.

    Three-line backlit LCD display and a backlit keypad.

    Flash, mute and hold buttons.

    Phone company voice mail and line-in-use indicators.

    Includes user's guide and a one-year warranty.

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If it quacks like a duck and honks like a goose — it must be your phone.

$49.99.

And don't come crying to me in six months asking how come you can't buy one: it will be because they sold out in a New York minute at this ridiculously low price.

[via Rodes Fishburne, a highly-regarded writer who appears to have an awful lot of spare time on his hands. Reminds me of someone I am — oops, I meant "know."]

June 23, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Is there a subliminal message of racism — and worse — in the picture below?

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This morning, as I was looking at yesterday's post featuring DripCatchers, I was struck by a thought: why is it that the girl who's all nice and neat with her nifty DripCatcher in place (left above and below)

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is blond, while a dark-haired, non-Anglo girl — whose photo is labeled "No more mess!" — with her face and top all full of popsicle drips, is the poster child for a bad outcome?

Why, for that matter, was it that in the Coors Light ads during the football season past, the babe sitting in the box seats dripping with sweat was dark-haired while the cool Coors-sipping goddess was blond?

I think it's because either unconsciously (doubt it) or quite consciously, the people who created these ad campaigns used the built-in, deep-seated bias that all of us have — whether or not we consciously realize it and rise above it — to influence us and sell product.

What I find especially troubling, though, about the DripCatchers photos is the use of that red circle,

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which of course can be passed off as a riff on the classic "No Whatever" sign but really — in the thin-lined motif used here — resembles much more the view through a rifle scope sight or bomb targeting laser camera.

Is it just me?

Am I too sensitive?

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Or am simply putting into words what would otherwise go unremarked — though not unnoticed?

June 23, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Hello Kitty iPod nano

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Take one cool thing.

Combine it with another.

What do you get?

This.

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$31.57 buys you a set of two full-face sheets (above).

June 23, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

What does a $180,000 stove look like?

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See above.

It's a new Molteni range, recently installed by a specialized rigging firm using a series of small cranes in the Park Hyatt Washington [D.C.] hotel's Blue Duck Tavern kitchen.

That's executive chef Brian McBride standing in front of his new über-tool.

Specs: it measures 18 feet by 6 feet, weighs 5,400 pounds, has six brass burners, custom hardware, a mirror-finish stainless-steel griddle, sauté station, two deep fryers (one designated solely for duck fat to crisp french fries), four refrigerator drawers and heated storage areas.

The cobalt enamel, knobs and handrails were all created to order.

Twelve technicians spent six weeks building the bespoke range in Saint-Vallier, France.

It's the first of its kind in a Washington restaurant kitchen but won't be the last.

Turns out, according to Walter Nicholls's story in the June 14 Washington Post Food section, that one Molteni stove is in place in a residence in the Washington suburbs.

Residential models, should you be considering an upgrade, run $23,000 to $75,000.

Here's the Post article.

    Some Heavy Lifting Installs a Showcase Range in Its New Home

    For two days recently, a large wooden crate containing a gleaming, cobalt blue-enameled stove with a price tag of $180,000 sat on the pavement on 24th Street NW in the West End.

    The Park Hyatt Washington's construction team couldn't figure out how to get the unwieldy, 5,400-pound, 18-by-6-foot Molteni (pronounced MOLE-ten-ee) commercial range into the Blue Duck Tavern, which is scheduled to open for dinner on Friday.

    In the end, a Manassas rigging firm was brought in. With a series of small cranes, the impressive range, which took 12 technicians six weeks to build in Saint-Vallier, France, was set in place in the open kitchen that flows into the 106-seat, modern/American Craftsman-style dining room conceived by New York designer Tony Chi.

    "It's a monster -- one incredibly sleek machine," executive chef Brian McBride said as he fired up one of the six brass stovetop burners.

    McBride worked for 19 years in the hotel's far less glamorous kitchen, which served the former Melrose restaurant. The hotel has been closed for nearly a year for a near-total renovation costing $24 million.

    McBride's new stove is named for the Provencal stove maker Joseph Molteni, who went into business in 1923, and is favored by many top European chefs. Manufactured from cast iron and brushed steel, each stove is custom-built to the chef's specifications.

    In addition to the six burners, McBride chose a mirror-finish stainless steel griddle, sauté station, two deep fryers -- one designated solely for duck fat to crisp french fries -- four refrigerator drawers and heated storage areas. The exact dimensions, color, knobs and handrails are all created to order.

    It's the only commercial Molteni in the Washington area, according to a company spokeswoman. (Only one area resident, a Silver Spring woman, has one of the residential-size models, which range in price from $23,000 to $75,000.) Molteni is part of the Electrolux Group of appliance manufacturers.

    McBride's New American menu will feature local purveyors and include the origin of the ingredients, such as pork shoulder from Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va., served with black walnut glaze, and five-hour braised short ribs from Four Story Hill Farm in Honesdale, Pa. Entrees, which range in price from $18 to $32, will be delivered to the table in silver-plated casseroles.

    Like a teenager smitten with his first car, McBride vows to keep his new stove shiny. "I'm going to hand-wash it twice a day," he says.

June 23, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Groove Tube

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"Designed by Seattle artist Matt Griesey, it's a translucent box made of paper and plastic with a grid of opaque dividers that attach to the screen with suction cups," wrote Maria Puente in an item that appears in today's USA Today.

She continued, "When the TV (or computer) is on, the Groove Tube averages the picture pixels and creates an ever-changing display of colors in each square."

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Then you turn off the sound and turn up your stereo, is the idea.

Here's a video demo

"'It's ingeniously simple,' said Lara Coffman Tusher of VelocityaArtandDesign.com, which is selling Groove Tubes. 'No matter what the beat is, it feels like the light display is changing in time with the music.'"

Griesey is moving on, according to the USA Today story, so the Groove Tube is being discontinued..

Meanwhile, they're selling the remaining stock off at fire sale prices: $30 (marked down from $40) for the medium (fits 19" to 22" TVs); $22.50 (formerly $30) for small (fits 13" to 15" TVs), both here.

Tell you what: these will be gone so fast after being featured here and in USA Today, your head will spin.

Be there or be square — and left out.

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And that's all I'm going to say about that.

June 23, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof tugs on [the Chinese internet firewall] Superman's cape

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His New York Times Op-Ed page column of this past Tuesday was music to my ears.

In it, he related how he tried to put up highly inflammatory material on a Chinese-language blog he created so as to provoke one of the country's estimated 30,000 paid internet censors to block his website.

Long story short: regardless of what he wrote, no matter how counterrevolutionary — including, for his grand finale, his eyewitness description of "how, on June 4, 1989, I saw the Chinese Army fire on Tiananmen Square protesters," the material appeared on his blog.

As Kristof wrote, "even 30,000 censors can't keep up with 120 million Chinese Netizens."

Here's the piece.

    In China It's ******* vs. Netizens

    To test the limits of the Internet in China, I started a couple of Chinese blogs — in which I huff and puff as outrageously as I can.

    For a country that employs some 30,000 Internet censors, that turned out to be stunningly easy. In about 10 minutes, I started Ji Sidao's blog — that's my Chinese name — on two Chinese Web hosts, at no cost and without providing any identification.

    Writing in Chinese, I began by denouncing the imprisonment of my Times colleague, Zhao Yan, by the Chinese authorities. I waited for it to be censored. Instead, it promptly appeared on my blog.

    In frustration, I wrote something even more provocative: a call for President Hu Jintao to set an example in the fight against corruption by publicly disclosing his financial assets. To my astonishment, that wasn't censored either.

    Desperate, I mentioned Falun Gong, the religious group that is the Chinese government's greatest enemy: "In Taiwan, the Chinese people have religious freedom. So in the Chinese mainland, why can't we discuss Falun Gong?" That instantly appeared on both my blogs as well, although on one the characters for "Falun" were replaced by asterisks (functioning as pasties, leaving it obvious what was covered up).

    Finally, I wrote the most inflammatory comment I could think of, describing how on June 4, 1989, I saw the Chinese Army fire on Tiananmen Square protesters. The two characters for June 4 were replaced by asterisks, but the description of the massacre remained intact.

    These various counterrevolutionary comments, all in Chinese, are still sitting there in Chinese cyberspace at http://blog.sina.com.cn/u/1238333873 and http://jisidao.blog.sohu.com. (When State Security reads this, it may finally order my blogs closed.)

    All this underscores, I think, that China is not the police state that its leaders sometimes would like it to be; the Communist Party's monopoly on information is crumbling, and its monopoly on power will follow. The Internet is chipping away relentlessly at the Party, for even 30,000 censors can't keep up with 120 million Chinese Netizens. With the Internet, China is developing for the first time in 4,000 years of history a powerful independent institution that offers checks and balances on the emperors.

    It's not that President Hu Jintao grants these freedoms, for he has arrested dozens of cyberdissidents as well as journalists. But the Internet is just too big and complex for State Security to control, and so the Web is beginning to assume the watchdog role filled by the news media in freer countries.

    A year ago, I wrote about a blogger named Li Xinde who travels around China with his laptop, reporting on corruption and human-rights abuses. I hailed Mr. Li as an example of the emerging civil society in China — and the government promptly closed down his Web site. I wondered if I had overstated the challenge.

    But today Mr. Li is as active as ever. His Web sites are constantly closed down, but the moment a site is censored he replaces it with a new one. An overseas master site, www.lixinde.com, tells people the best current address.

    "They can keep closing sites, but they never catch up," Mr. Li told me. "You can't stop the Yellow River from flowing, and you can't block the bloggers."

    In today's China, young people use proxy software to reach forbidden sites and Skype to make phone calls without being tapped — and the local Web pornography is relentless and explicit, ranging from sex videos to nude online chats.

    "We're very relaxed now on pornography, but on politics it's very tight," said Yao Bo, a censor at a major chat-room site in China. He explained how the censorship works for a chat room:

    Filtering software automatically screens the several hundred thousand comments typically posted on his Web site every day. Comments with a banned word go into a special queue, but Mr. Yao says he ends up posting all but the most subversive of these — his Web site, after all, wants to be provocative to attract visitors. State Security periodically scolds him for his laxity, but he seems unconcerned: "I just tell them I'm dumb about politics."

    China's leaders decided years ago to accept technologies even if they are capable of subversive uses: photocopiers and fax machines at first, and now laptops and text messaging. The upshot is that China is much freer than its rulers would like.

    To me, this trend looks unstoppable. I don't see how the Communist Party dictatorship can long survive the Internet, at a time when a single blog can start a prairie fire.

    ***

    (An update: On Wednesday afternoon, Beijing time, both blogs appeared to be removed.

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    By then several thousand people had clicked on them, and scores of Chinese bloggers had linked to them.)

June 23, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Official bookofjoe Vegetable Steamer

999000

From the website:

    Vegetable Steamer

    Great for stovetop or microwave, this updated plastic steamer has heat-resistant silicone feet.

    Won't scratch non-stick pans.

    Folds for storage.

    Dishwasher-safe.

    3-1/2"H x 9-1/2"Dia.

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Now your broccoli can hide in plain sight.

$6.99.

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Addendum at 9:11 a.m. today: We've just been notified that this steamer has been selected as the Official Vegetable Steamer of the Green Party.

Crunchy doesn't just mean al dente.

June 23, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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