Coffee, History & Literature

Adam Gopnik, one of our favorite essayists, wrote an excellent essay on this topic; and Michael Pollan, among others, wrote a book.

There is still plenty to say about the history of coffee, as far as we are concerned, and Ed Simon demonstrates it in this essay from The Millions, an online magazine:

Coffee, the Great Literary Stimulant

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” –T.S Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)

Maronite priest Antonio Fausto Naironi once claimed that the greatest of miracles happened in ninth-century Ethiopia. It was then and there, in the province of Oromia, that a young shepherd named Kaldi noticed that his goats were prone to running, leaping, and dancing after they had eaten blood-red berries from a mysterious bush. Continue reading

Paying for the Birds You See?

Can we put a price tag on birds we see?

Image by the author

I recently came across an Oxford professor’s blog that revolves mostly around conservation and birding, and one of his posts was particularly interesting to me. In it, Professor Paul Jepson discusses the increasing presence of photography in the British birding sphere, and what bird photography means for the hobby of birding/birdwatching. I encourage you to read his article (I’ll put a link below), but will first share one idea that Jepson brings up toward the end of the piece, and which was very thought-provoking:

Bird photography is part of the socio-technological assembly that is shaping futures. If birdwatching is to be a cultural force in the twenty-first century, our bird reserves will need to embrace developments and directions in digital technologies. … My thought experiment imagines a system of pay-for nature hides with an observation tower, like the one in Muritz National Park outside Berlin, as its centre piece. Birding has a strong ‘nature as a public good’ mentality. While many bird photographers agree with this principle, they are also willing to pay for entry to the facilities and special places that enable them to get the shot they desire. Nature hides are popping up across Britain and 2017 hide day rates are £75 for the opportunity to photograph Common Kestrels Falco tinnunculus, £99 for Kingfishers and £150 for Black Grouse.

Although I enjoy taking photos of birds and sharing them online, I do not consider myself a bird photographer, partly because I don’t have the specialized gear (my camera is a point-and-shoot model, though its exceptional 65x optical zoom is useful for bird photos). That being said, Continue reading

Utopia, Dystopia & Options

852ad6386c912e57e5ddca3d6602a1da.jpgI just listened to a conversation with Mr. Bregman, and as he explained the premise for his book I was struck: times like these are exactly when the seeds for utopian thinking are in the most fertile soil. The book itself is not likely my cup of tea, but I am impressed by this man’s effort to bring us this, now.

Cory Doctorow’s essay, over at Wired, is a perfect read to continue the thoughts on choices we make related to utopia versus dystopia:

…The difference between utopia and dystopia isn’t how well everything runs. It’s about what happens when everything fails. Here in the nonfictional, disastrous world, we’re about to find out which one we live in. Continue reading

Model Mad, Enlightened


The true élite of modern societies is composed of engineers, mechanics, and artisans—masters of reality, not big thinkers. Illustration by Leigh Guldig

One of our favorite essayists (for exemplary reasons, see here, and here, and here) makes a compelling case for our taking a good look at the foundation of our assumptions, in this age of model mad.

His several essays in the months preceding and following the 2016 Brexit referendum and the USA election were impassioned, but this one in the form of a triple-book-review hits the mark the best, reminding us of the basic premises of the Enlightenment and how that matters now more than ever:

Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald’s opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand. Thomas Friedman is concerned. Continue reading

Design Worth Reading About



Sometimes it makes more sense to look at a design rather than read about it. This story is in itself interesting (thanks to Wired) and that is because of the combination of the history of Piaggio and the character at the center of the design story:

IN THE SUMMER months of 2015, Jeffrey Schnapp and a few of his colleagues started collecting rideables. The hoverboard craze was in full swing, and OneWheels and Boosteds were showing up on roads and sidewalks. Schnapp and his co-founders rode, drove, and crashed everything they could find. For Schnapp, a Harvard professor and longtime technologist with a shaved head, pointy goatee, and a distinct Ben Kingsley vibe, this was market research. Continue reading

Getting Our Thinking Right, When It Matters Most

9780399184123An editorial that I read yesterday– Does Decision-Making Matter?–was a welcome “moving on” from all the other kinds of recent editorializing. Welcome because it tells us there is a new Michael Lewis book, and especially welcome because it shows that five years after we first heard him credit two scientists for their influential work he has now gone the last mile in documenting their greatness for a mass audience. We have had a couple nods to that same work in our pages in recent years.

This morning’s walk was accompanied by a podcast I had neglected for some months, with an interview that Chuck Klosterman–not mentioned in our pages before–gave to promote his new book. It is time to finally correct that oversight. I cannot explain why that is important as well as the interview can, so I suggest listening to it. If you do not have the 90 minutes required for that, a short synopsis version of his promotional interview can be heard and read on this NPR interview given at about the same time:

‘But What If We’re Wrong:’ A Look At How We Will Remember The Now, Later


What if everything we think that’s important or interesting or relevant right now will be totally insignificant in the future? Or what if something we don’t really appreciate today will be considered great in 200 years, like how people didn’t think much of “Moby Dick” when it was written, but now we think it’s pretty great? These are the questions that critic Chuck Klosterman asks in his new book. In it, he tries to predict how we will remember the present when it is the past. And he’s not too worried about whether he’s right or not. Continue reading

A Question of Light

Selling “light,” not light bulbs, is one way that companies producing long-lasting L.E.D. bulbs hope to stay in business, even after “socket saturation” sets in. PHOTOGRAPH BY TONY CENICOLA / THE NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX

Selling “light,” not light bulbs, is one way that companies producing long-lasting L.E.D. bulbs hope to stay in business, even after “socket saturation” sets in.

In a business world of planned obsolesce and consumer world “throw away behavior”,  it’s enlightening to see how companies are handling “doing good by doing well” for the both the environment and the consumer’s pockbook.


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Hydroponics at Home


A vertical hydroponic system that also serves a artistic window decor by Michael Doherty.
Source: Washington Post

Hydroponics is far from a new subject on our blog (read on Milo’s experimentation with hydroponics), and while the sustainable benefits of this gardening method have been shared before, there is still one aspect we haven’t covered: appearance.

Just to cover the basics once again, hydroponics is a system of growing plants without soil and using mineral nutrient solutions in water. It’s water efficient and can be done easily in tight quarters, which means anyone can create a hydroponic system – in theory.

“If you understand the fundamentals, what the plants need, and you have some practical use of tools, it can be just a kiddie pool filled with water and a floating piece of Styrofoam board with holes cut in it,” believes Gene Giacomelli, a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at the University of Arizona and director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

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Words, Nature, Ideas

From today’s New York Times, whose lead headline is the largest in my lifetime that I remember, yet (with apologies to all those affected by the cause of those headlines) I find this editorial more urgent and hope Mr. Egan will not mind my sharing it here:

Everybody Wants To Rule The World

rexfeatures_4272778a_web-487x800Logic, even if it seems to be missing much of the time, provides a set of rules by which the world can at least make more sense. It may not always help one rule the world, but it helps understand some of the rules of the world. Mr du Sautoy’s idea here is akin to the one we make, and link out to from time to time, about the value of liberal arts education for the sake of learning how to think and communicate clearly:

A Podcast Worthy Of The Binge


Alex Blumberg was only vaguely familiar to me when I listened to an interview with him on a podcast series that accompanied my early morning bicycle rides in late 2015. I had listened to Planet Money on occasion, and found it amusingly interesting most of the time. I had rarely, if ever, listened to This American Life, though many friends had recommended it.

Blumberg caught my full attention in this conversation recorded in October, 2014 as he described the process of sharing his experience starting up a new company. Continue reading

Putting All That Gee Whiz Technology And Creative Knowhow To Much Better Use


Two scenes from a virtual-reality “ride” that takes viewers into the realm of whales, fish and sonic and plastic pollution. Credit Dell

One of our favorite sources of “green news” in the early days of this blog five years ago, Mr. Revkin reappears every now and then with something really cool:

To Cut Ocean Trash, Adrian Grenier and Dell Enlist Filmmakers and Virtual Reality

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Passive Homes in Washington, DC

Photo © Passivhaus Institute, Germany

Energy-efficient and eco-friendly homes have been the subject of posts here in the past. Virginia Carabelli shared her first-hand experience with straw bale construction, and we’ve seen stories about earthships made from recycled material and houses covered in solar panels. Now we’re learning about a whole category of houses that can be certified as “passive” to a standard popularized in Germany. These buildings are like a thermos: extremely well insulated so that heating and cooling costs can be minimized to the point where the house is projected to use up to 90% less energy than the average house. Habitat for Humanity, in collaboration with other organizations for funding and discounts on domestic electronics, is building several houses in the DC area for a low-income neighborhood: Wendy Koch reports for National Geographic:

Built partly by volunteers, these low-budget Habitat for Humanity homes—now nearing completion—don’t look like anything special. They have basic brick facades like others in their gentrifying Ivy City neighborhood.

They stand out in other ways: 12-inch-thick exterior walls and triple-pane, imported-from-Ireland windows offer more than double the insulation required of new homes. In lieu of a furnace, tiny, wall-mounted Mitsubishi units provide heating and cooling. (See related blog post: “Laying the Foundation for Sustainable Housing in D.C.“)

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Idea Of The Day: Tiny Habits

HBR WordPress

We started the Bird Of The Day series very close to the beginning of this blog in 2011, and it has been our most important ongoing effort here. We get more visitation to those daily posts than to any other series, and in aggregate the series has brought us more new visitors to this site than any other kind of post. We have had a few other series–including “Come to Kerala” which we still write, and Word Of The Day, which we no longer write about–that fit our interests but get little or no traction from our readers.

Today it occurs to me to begin a new stream, largely aimed at our own internal audience of hundreds of people we manage in India, Thailand and Costa Rica.

Ideas. Starting here and now. 17 minutes well spent here with the Harvard Business Review podcast led me to this conclusion. Specifically, about 15 minutes into the podcast of an interview with Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic and co-founder of WordPress, caught my attention as a good idea. Small habits. Listen just for that, but he has plenty of other good ideas as well.

Wisdom Keeper


Tia Tsosie Begay is a fourth-grade teacher at a small public school on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this look into the mission-driven work of Tia, who has caught our attention:

In the Navajo culture, teachers are revered as “wisdom keepers,” entrusted with the young to help them grow and learn. This is how Tia Tsosie Begay approaches her work as a fourth-grade teacher at a small public school on the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz.

For Navajos, says Begay, your identity is not just a name; it ties you to your ancestors, which in turn defines you as a person.

“My maternal clan is ‘water’s edge’; my paternal clan is ‘water flows together,’ ” she explains. “Our healing power is through humor and laughter, and I try to bring that to my classroom.” Continue reading

Airports and Urban Farming

Katrina Ceguera tends JetBlue's farm outside Terminal 5 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. PHOTO: Chelsea Brodsky /JetBlue

Katrina Ceguera tends JetBlue’s farm outside Terminal 5 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. PHOTO: Chelsea Brodsky /JetBlue

Airports are growing a ‘green’ conscience, and how! If Kochi in Kerala, India is home to the world’s first airport to be completely powered by solar energy, then the Galapagos airstrip is not far behind. Going off-grid is just one way to offset massive carbon footprints left behind by the use of fossil fuels. Another way might be to add a touch of green – like JetBlue did at the New York airport.

JetBlue was intent on growing potatoes and other produce at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. It took three years of jumping through hoops before the T5 Farm, named for its location outside Terminal 5, came to fruition in early October, the company says.

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When the Sun Goes Down

About seven out of every 10 households in rural India have no access to electricity. Many of these households still use less efficient energy sources that are harmful to the environment, such as kerosene. Even in places where electricity is accessible, shortages are frequent and the supply is inconsistent. In such a scenario, solar lamps come as a blessing and are revolutionizing lives in the country and around the world.

PRASHANT MANDAL FLIPS ON A CANDY-BAR-SIZE LED LIGHT in the hut he shares with his wife and four children. Instantly hues of canary yellow and ocean blue—reflecting off the plastic tarps that serve as the family’s roof and walls—fill the cramped space where they sleep.  He shuts down the solar unit that powers the light and unplugs it piece by piece, then carries it to a tent some 20 yards away, where he works as a chai wallah, selling sweet, milky tea to travelers on the desolate road in Madhotanda, a forested town near the northern border of India.

“My life is sad, but I have my mind to help me through it,” Mandal says, tapping the fraying cloth of his orange turban. “And this solar light helps me to keep my business open at night.”

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Washing Hands to a Cleaner World

When Dr. Pawan found out about the unhygienic living conditions in Gadchiroli, Maharasthra, India, he created a hand-washing device in just Rs.35 (50 cents) that has been saving the lives of the villagers. - PHOTO: Better India

When Dr. Pawan found out about the unhygienic living conditions in Gadchiroli, Maharasthra, India, he created a hand-washing device in just Rs.35 (50 cents) that has been saving the lives of the villagers. – PHOTO: Better India

Clean care is safe care, says the World Health Organisation and follows it with a campaign on washing hands towards cleaner living and working conditions across the globe. And Dr. Pawan did his part too. By creating a hand-washing device that costs less than 50 cents, roping in children to keep the initiative going, and relying on elders for the device to adapted and adopted into the community.

In 2008, Dr. Pawan was one of the seven students selected for a two-year fellowship programme at Nirman’s SEARCH (Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health), in Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, India. The programme encourages students to work in areas affecting rural communities like water management and NRGA schemes, and being a physician, Dr. Pawan chose to work in the health sector. Living in the community, he realised that there were several diseases persisting in the village, those that could be prevented by merely drinking clean water or paying more attention to cleanliness. He promptly did a study that revealed that of the 64 families living in the village, only six families used soap for washing hands.

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Giving Food a Longer Life

The FoodWa, which comes in two sizes, and is like a big ventilated box. The smaller "Batch" version can handle about 11 pounds at a time. PHOTO: CoExist

The FoodWa, which comes in two sizes, and is like a big ventilated box. The smaller “Batch” version can handle about 11 pounds at a time. PHOTO: CoExist

Each year, the world loses or squanders a third of the food it produces. This means that somewhere between planting seeds in fields and providing nourishment to the world’s 7 billion people, approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of food with a value of more than US$1 trillion is lost or wasted. These numbers are simply untenable in a world where, according to Food and Agriculture Organization, some 870 million people do not have enough to eat. In fact, according to the FAO-commissioned study that tallied these numbers, if just one-fourth of lost or wasted food were saved, it could end global hunger.

And drying food, to prevent it from rotting during storage, maybe a solution. A clean, green solution especially with the FoodWa system that uses solar energy to dry foods.

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Making Silk Non-violent

Kusuma Rajaiah displaying a sari made from 'Ahimsa Silk'. Photo: Balachander Goud

Kusuma Rajaiah displaying a sari made from ‘Ahimsa Silk’. Photo: Balachander Goud

Do you know how many silkworms are normally killed to make a five yard silk sari? Kusuma Rajaiah, a 55-year old government officer from India’s Andhra Pradesh state, does: “Around 50,000.” Rajaiah estimates that around 15 silkworms are normally sacrificed to produce a gram of silk yarn. For years, he’s been battling against what he describes as the “cruel killing of millions of innocent worms.” And has come up with an alternative. He realized the lure of silk was too strong to persuade people to give it up altogether so he came up with a technique that spares the life of the silkworm.

Ahimsa silk derives its idea and the brand name from Mahatma Gandhi, who was also critical of the conventional method of silk production. In fact, he had written to the Silk Board of India to explore ways of producing silk without hurting any living being. For Rajaiah, it’s a matter of pride to have fulfilled that wish; a pride shared by those who use the fabric.

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