Mykonos and Delos

September 20th, 2017

At the very end of the first Jason Bourne movie, The Bourne Identity, a young Matt Damon – after considerable trials & tribulations — is finally able to re-connect with Marie, who has found a hidden (and much more relaxing!) lifestyle renting scooters to tourists on the Greek isle of Mykonos. So….. who wouldn’t want to go to such a place?

Mykonos windmills

Indeed, that island has now become a bit of a tourist mecca, well known for its upbeat party scene, as well as the narrow, maze-like, white-walled and stone alleyways of its main town Chora. It’s a very windy place, so I had special interest in the windmills built by Venetians back in the 16th Century, which were used to grind flour…. and are now a distinctive landmark.

I also took a trip to the nearby island of Delos – birthplace of the gods Apollo and Artemis, and an ancient religious site that became the world’s largest trading port in the year 166 BC (when the Romans made it a free port). The town had 30,000 residents and handled 75,000 cargo ships a year – and since the region at that time had a slave economy, also sold 25,000 slaves a year in its Agora. Unfortunately it all came to an end in 88 BC, when Mithridates, the King of Pontus (in northern Turkey) attacked the island, killed all its inhabitants (or sold them into slavery), looted the city’s treasures, and razed it to the ground. Much of the marble was similarly stripped away over the years, so most of what remains is granite. Today, it is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO; excavations began in 1872, and are still underway today.

Delos

I noted below (in the Athens posting) that some see Hellenic architecture as a forerunner to Modernism…. and the hotel we stayed at in Mykonos decided to take the new & fuse it with the old — with absolutely delightful results! The Alkistis Hotel is located a bit outside of town, near the Agios Stefanos beach, and if you check out their website, you’ll see that it was “inspired by Cycladic minimalism,” and that its “stark, uncluttered design brings out the minimalism characteristic of Mykonos’s traditional architecture with a contemporary sense of style….” Sitting in its open-air restaurant (built with pilotis and sliding glass doors), sipping a local wine, and checking out a beautiful sunset view…… truly sublime!!

Santorini

September 20th, 2017

If you’ve ever seen a travel poster for Greece, chances are it either shows the Parthenon/Acropolis (see posting below), or the whitewashed structures & blue-domed/white-crossed churches of Santorini, clinging to the side of a lava-encrusted hillside above a pristine blue Aegean shoreline. I too had seen those posters, and yes, they were extremely effective…. because I’ve always, always wanted to go there!

Sunset on Santorini

Santorini is a volcanic caldera – the result of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, occurring about 3600 years ago. There are lots of speculative ideas that link that eruption to the lost city of Atlantis, or to the Biblical disasters & plagues that led to the Exodus out of Egypt. In 197 BC, a small islet broke above seawater in the center of the caldera, and six eruptions in the last 430 years (the latest occurring in 1950) ultimately led to the formation of a small islet called Nea Kameni. I hiked across that islet, visiting the lava fields and monitoring sites described by ISMOSAV (the Institute for the Study and Monitoring of the Santorini Volcano; note that their website even offers real-time seismicity readings!). It still has active fumaroles emitting hydrogen sulfide and other gases. We also had a chance to visit the buried Minoan city of Akrotiri, which is on the main (Thera) island. That was buried during the major eruption, which is estimated to have occurred in the early 1600s BC. While it is like Pompeii in many respects, no bodies or jewelry have been found during the excavations; obviously volcanic tremors gave its citizens plenty of warning & time to leave.

The volcano and its historical impacts were certainly very interesting, but we also had an additional modern quest in mind: the wines grown in Santorini’s ‘volcanic terroir.’ Even before leaving New Jersey, I had met up with a good friend and former business partner, Joel Epstein, who recently moved back to the East Coast after 16 years in California. Joel is an oenophile, with great taste and knowledge about wines….. and he suggested that I try a white Santo Assyrtiko before our trip. I found a local N.J. shop that sold it – and that wine subsequently became indelibly linked to our vacation plans (Note: It probably didn’t hurt that I was reading Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus to get ready as well!)

We visited the Santo Winery in Santorini to taste it and other local varieties – but the Assyrtiko remained the favorite, and we sought it throughout the visit, on our numerous Greek gastronomic stops. (I know you’ll have to take my word for it….. but the building that you can fuzzily make out through the wine bottle glass in the photo above is the Parthenon.) Thanks much, Joel!

Athens

September 20th, 2017

After a trip to Athens, Ohio this past summer (see three postings below)….. we had a chance to visit the real thing on our way back to HNC: Athens, Greece! Yes, yet another seat of learning – but this one the very foundation of Western Civilization.

A couple of obvious targets were the Parthenon on the Acropolis and the new Acropolis Museum housing many of its original treasures…. & for these I had Mary Beard’s lively & rather witty book The Parthenon as a guide. She delves into the complicated history of that edifice: an ancient temple for the goddess Athena; a Christian church, complete with bell tower; an Islamic mosque, with the tower extended to become a minaret; and a valuable treasure source for Britain’s Lord Elgin in the early 1800’s (i.e., the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum). Lately, of course, it has assumed the role of cultural icon, with restoration still on-going (as evident in the picture)…. and never-ending controversy about the return of major pieces from London, now that a suitable museum home for them exists at the site.

The Parthenon

Its classic beauty has been appreciated by architects around the world, and – given my recent postings about modern architecture – I found it interesting that Beard pointed out that even an iconoclast like Le Corbusier “rooted his new vision of architecture in the sheer perfection of the Parthenon.” Le Corbusier had written: “There has been nothing like it anywhere or at any period,” and suggested that “one clear image will stand in my mind forever: the Parthenon, stark, stripped, economical, violent, a clamorous outcry against a landscape of grace and terror.”

The people, food, climate, and lifestyle of Greece have always held attraction – a major reason for our trip! — but others see an even more profound Mediterranean influence on Le Corbusier. Alain de Botton & John Armstrong, in their work Art as Therapy, state that “what we now know as Modernism is in large measure an attempt to recreate white vernacular Hellenic architecture in a northern climate, with the help of steel, glass and concrete.” The sun-drenched, outdoor, laid-back attitude of Greeks and other southern Europeans contrasted with the cold, rational and efficient mores of northerners, and these authors suggest that Le Corbusier was fascinated by “the whitewashed seaside villages and the spirit their simple, uncluttered, unornamented designs exuded.” A solarium on the Villa Savoye in northern France was thus “making an argument for a paganism of the spirit, whatever the weather might be doing outside.”

It’s a bit of a leap from the classical columns of the Parthenon to Le Corbusier’s pilotis & other design elements – but I suspect that those Hellenic whitewashed seaside villages and the Mediterranean food & lifestyle were indeed as enticing to him as they were to us…. & those factors were key to our next two stops, in Santorini and Mykonos.

China’s ETS & EVs

August 27th, 2017

Given the considerable international attention being paid to China’s new national emissions trading program, the editors of IFP School’s Alumni Mag invited me to prepare an article about this important topic (which we address in both my HNC & IFP School lectures). The resulting paper was published in July (in Issue No. 266)….. & basically represents an update on the article I wrote back in Issue No. 249 (in 2011, when the journal was still called L’Hydrocarbure).

I was also quoted recently by Xinhua in an article about China’s auto industry. The electrification of transportation — & subsequent integration of electric vehicle battery storage systems into the grid – is exactly the type of game-changing technological shift that will ultimately allow us to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Oil Creek

August 27th, 2017

Given that I’m an ERE professor, you’d probably guess that one of the places I’ve always wanted to visit was the area around Oil Creek in western Pennsylvania, where the oil industry had its beginning…. & you’d be absolutely right! Colonel Edwin Drake drilled for oil there in 1859 at a site just south of Titusville, PA, and today there is a museum and a replica of his drilling rig on that exact location.

Replica of Drake’s drilling rig

The museum does a really nice job of showing just how important this industry is, and the many, many technical issues it faced: drilling technology (originally hammered spikes and steam engines, later rotary drill bits and diesel engines); storage (washtubs and wooden barrels at first, followed by wooden & then metal tanks); transport (barrels & wooden tanks on rail, followed by tank cars & then pipelines); refining (crude distillation tanks, ultimately evolving into modern refineries and petrochemical plants); and final product marketing (kerosene for lamps initially, with gasoline a waste product; all that changed with the internal combustion engine).

In addition to the museum, we wandered around nearby Oil City and Oil Creek State Park, checking out the abandoned boomtowns of Petroleum Center and Pithole. The former is located within Wildcat Hollow, a place that gave the term ‘wildcatters’ to those independent types who drilled in such risky, unproven areas.

Oil Creek in Oil City, PA

This area gave birth to an industry that had a radical impact upon the world…. & of course, I have to mention Daniel Yergin’s wonderful The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, 1992’s Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction, on that count. But given today’s ERE focus, it’s also appropriate to mention a more recent work by Dieter Helm at Oxford University that portends its demise. Burnout: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels suggests that there are three unstoppable forces at work in the world today: endless supplies of fossil fuels (i.e., no more ‘peak oil’!); de-carbonization for climate change; and new digital and information technologies. After discussing these three forces, he discusses both the geopolitical effects they will have (on the U.S., the Middle East, China, Russia, etc.) and on energy companies (oil companies, electric utilities, etc.).

Over the years, Helm has been quite harsh about emissions trading, the EU ETS and the Kyoto Protocol – unduly so, I believe — and (like many other readers) I think he doesn’t really pay sufficient attention to how we move from a technological ‘here’ to ‘there.’ But overall, I think he’s got the big picture right…. and it promises to be a rather disruptive energy transition over coming decades!

Southern Ohio anomie

August 27th, 2017

I graduated from high school in Youngstown, Ohio; spent four years at Ohio U. in the southeastern part of the state (in Athens, OH); worked & then went to grad school in Cincinnati; and married a girl from Lancaster, Ohio…. so you can see that I’m somewhat familiar with that area. Still, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s been going on lately within the U.S., and – let’s be honest here – I’m also trying to understand (at least in some small way) how 63 million fellow American citizens could vote for someone like Trump. A summertime visit to Southern Ohio gave us a chance to catch up with some old friends and former neighbors, & offered a glimpse of that world….. although I first did a bit of reading prep.

Brian Alexander’s Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town begins with the author’s description of a cop & other local residents in my wife’s hometown, Lancaster, choking to hold back tears as they described “just how much the foundation of the town they once knew had crumbled.” Adult males “heavily tattooed and skinny, hoodies drawn up over their heads” accompanied by “girlfriends dressed in Hello Kitty pajama pants who pushed strollers” now haunted Main Street…. all linked to the twin scourges of job loss and drugs.

When I first started visiting that current “pajama pants capital of Ohio,” the town had a thriving dominant employer, the Anchor Hocking glass company – and what makes Alexander’s book so powerful is that he shows that it was not globalization, or China, or some foreign entity that caused the decline. Instead, it was a domestic threat: Wall Street. The firm that locals called ‘the Hockin’’ employed 17,000 people and had little debt in the early 1980s – until corporate ‘private equity’ raiders (led by Carl Icahn) loaded it up with debt, stripped away that wealth, put little into maintenance or R&D, and ultimately drove the company into bankruptcy.

Sam Quinones’ Dream Land: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic deals with the drug side of the equation. I’ll admit that the whole opioid problem was not even on my radar screen before the election – but Quinones documents how “OxyContin’s popularity was spreading west just as the trafficker… brought Xalisco black tar heroin east. They collided in central and southern Ohio [emphasis added].” His book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction in 2015, shows how a group of entrepreneurs from one small town in Mexico (Xalisco) set up a delivery system in the U.S. that sold heroin like pizza…. and met up with a pharmaceutical-delivery system for opiates every bit as effective (but legal).

J.D. Vance’s best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis shows just how devastating such an opiate addiction can be…. especially when entwined with a culture that – although fiercely patriotic – also displays elements of despair & what psychologists call “learned helplessness” (i.e., when persons believe that the choices they make have no effect on the outcomes of their lives). Vance discusses the latter trait, but found its antithesis in the Marines – a “learned willfulness” that enabled him to break out of that mindset and achieve considerable personal success (including graduations from both Ohio State University and Yale Law School, before his authorship acclaim).

Such a result for one individual is certainly encouraging — but this collection of books also makes it clear that these issues are very, very deep-rooted within the community, the result of culture, personal decisions and economic activities undertaken over decades…. and they are not readily amenable to simple or easy fixes. Southern Ohio has been hit hard in recent years, and the on-going demise of its coal industry seems likely to portend continuing economic difficulties.

Our visit provided considerable evidence for the story told in these books – new ‘pain management centers,’ unfamiliar flashy storefronts offering ‘quick cash for car titles,’ and the like….. but our friends are doing fine, and there was also some new construction, & new stores and homes. Such books alone do not explain Trump; Mugambi Jouet’s Exceptional America and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism probably give a better overall picture. But lots of bumper stickers told the same story (I certainly didn’t see any Hillary ones!) — and more than 60% of Lancaster’s Fairfield County voters helped elect Donald Trump President.

New Orleans

June 29th, 2017

In the opening scene of the wonderful novel A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly stands under the clock in front of the D.H. Holmes department store in New Orleans, waiting for his mother. He’s approached by a policeman, who finds it hard to ignore the obese, flatulent, and belching protagonist, slovenly dressed and wearing a green hunting cap with earflaps. So begins one of the most hilarious novels I’ve ever read…. and one which has a special memory for me because it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever read a book that I couldn’t continue because I was laughing so hard. My eyes watered over and tears streamed down my face, so I stopped for thirty seconds to compose myself…. but when I picked up the book to continue, I couldn’t get any further because it happened yet again.

Confederacy of Dunces & Ignatius J. Reilly

My wife, observing this, couldn’t wait to read it…. but then sat with a straight face the whole time “waiting for the funny part.” So it was with considerable trepidation that I decided to re-read this quintessential New Orleans novel during a trip to the Big Easy. Would I still find it so amusing almost four decades later?

I needn’t have worried. John Kennedy Toole’s book is a rollicking story that riffs on blacks, gays, feminists, college professors, the police, capitalists, communists and just about everybody else in this early 1960s New Orleans jambalaya mix. The 30-year old Reilly is lazy, lives at home with his mother, has considerable difficulty holding onto a job – & spends his time instead writing notebooks full of his views about the world (relying heavily on the Roman goddess Fortuna and philosopher Boethius). When these views clash with the reality of modern New Orleans…. well, I’m sure you can imagine a latter-day, obese Don Quixote with a hot-dog vendor’s cart rather than a trusty steed.

Andrew Jackson & St. Louis Cathedral

I made it a point on this R&R trip to visit the site of the novel’s opening scene on Canal Street, which has now been marked with a statue of Reilly (photo above). But the Confederacy story has a rather sad true-life ending…. despite the novel’s brilliance the author had trouble getting it published, fell into depression, and committed suicide at the age of 31; twelve years later, in 1981, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

I hadn’t been in New Orleans for almost that same period of time – and this visit gave me a chance to re-visit some standard NOLA sites (the French Quarter & Bourbon Street, the Garden District, Jackson Square, etc.) & feast on some delectable NOLA cuisine: po’boys & chargrilled oysters, breakfast at Brennan’s, beignets at Café du Monde, etc. But the visit included newer landmarks as well: the 9th Ward (with many houses still boarded up, a dozen years after the Katrina flooding) and the repaired site of the 17th Street levee break.

Hirsute air pollution guy

In that last trip to New Orleans in 1979 I had presented a paper at a technical conference about siting air pollution monitors — & while that technical paper is now long forgotten, the published proceedings still shows some young guy with a (short-lived, & very scraggly) beard. Whatever was he thinking??

Tibet

June 29th, 2017

Potala Palace

Long before he achieved worldwide acclaim with his mega-novel A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth spent two years as a graduate student here at Nanjing University – and in between those two years (the summer of 1981), he hitchhiked home to Delhi in India via Xinjiang and Tibet. Luckily, he wrote about that experience in another award-winning book, From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet.

I took a much, much easier route to Tibet…. simply hopping on a plane & flying to Lhasa! But I was able to visit many of the same sites that he did, and his travel book was an excellent companion. His depiction of the scene at Potala Palace:

The mass of people, pilgrims from everywhere in Tibet, devout and curious, chanting, praying, shoving against each other, spinning prayer-wheels, giving offerings to the Buddhas, and ladling yak butter from jars into the lamps, has reached a pitch of religious enthusiasm that is, to my exhausted senses, both exalting and disturbing. Impression blurs with impression, and later I cannot remember what any particular room was like. Everywhere there are silk brocades and banners of faded silk, dark wood on the walls, the smoke and aroma of chalice-shaped yak butter lamps, golden images of Buddhas. Lamas in maroon and saffron robes sit in alcoves intoning from the scriptures…. and the endless chant of ‘Om mani padme hum’.

Thirty-six years later, that’s still a pretty realistic description of the Potala experience – as well as that of the Drepung Monastery (at one time the largest monastery in the world) and Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa (considered by many the most sacred and important temple in Tibet).

The Sera Monastery was a bit more sedate, but here there was a fascinating ‘debate courtyard’ for young monks who were learning the precepts of Buddhism. The instructor would typically lay out a morning lesson, and the afternoon ‘debate’ session would challenge individual monks to come to terms with (and internalize) the ideas. Lots of hand clapping, arm gestures and dramatic movements were going on, although the picture suggests there is an underlying calm at work as well.

The debating courtyard at Sera Monastery

Seth spent a lot of time in his travelogue describing the various documents and permissions and approvals necessary to travel through the Tibet countryside, and the situation is still very much controlled. I could no longer travel alone like he did, for example, but had to join a group tour, and our guide similarly had a long list of oversight requirements. I wanted to take a picture of a lion statue on the roof of the Potala that Seth had included in his book – but such photography is now forbidden. The author had also hiked out to a site next to the Sera Monastery where locals performed traditional ‘sky burials’ (i.e., preparing corpses that could then be consumed by local vultures and birds); I made enquiries, but that site too is now closed to foreign visitors.

But still…. I was in Tibet!! An absolutely stunning experience, and one that I will never forget.

HNC Scholars – II

June 29th, 2017

Last year we had our very first group of Energy, Resources and Environment (ERE) Masters students graduate from HNC, and it was certainly a very distinguished group. This year we similarly had a really great group of students, shown in the picture below.

China has paid a lot of attention to ‘greening’ its financial sector over recent years, and Ms. Yang Sha (on the left in the picture) and Ms. Chen Yunjie (on the right) wrote theses addressing China’s new green bond and green credit policies, respectively. Although China issues more green bonds than anywhere else in the world, none of these are municipal bonds – and Ms. Yang’s thesis addressed how China might bring itself into alignment with other countries in doing so. Ms. Chen examined how banks evaluated companies when making credit and loan decisions, and the manner in which the government’s ‘green credit’ policies face real-world implementation obstacles within Jiangsu Province.

HNC 2017 Scholars

Ms. Tan Yanqiu (center, next to me) wrote her thesis about the greenhouse gas emissions associated with battery storage systems used within the power sector – a topic which is becoming important as utilities adopt wind and solar renewable energy technologies, and one which she shows to play an increasingly significant role as those systems decarbonize. Other faculty members judged her thesis to be an “outstanding” one, and she has received a coveted position in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs — and will begin that work in Beijing later this summer.

A number of other students not pictured also deserve mention. Ms. Liu Chang received her Masters degree with a thesis addressing the potential role of third-party auditors in China’s upcoming national carbon market. We work our HNC Masters students very, very hard — I remember the painful corrections & revisions on my own Masters thesis; now imagine doing that same work in a foreign language! — & I suspect Ms. Liu was already off celebrating when the picture above was taken. But she will no doubt do very well in her future career. Similarly, Mr. Dai Lei graduated last year (off-cycle) with a thesis addressing the levelized cost of electricity for Chinese photovoltaic installations. He presciently found that certain regional feed-in tariffs were considerably above the costs of delivery, given the rapid decline in PV module costs – and the government adjusted those rates downward shortly thereafter.

Finally, Jiwoon Choi joined me for a UNEP-UNIDO meeting about green industry in early May, and did a write-up about it for our HNC blog. Jiwoon will be spending this summer as an intern with my good friends and colleagues at UN ESCAP in Bangkok, and she’ll then head to SAIS Washington to finish up her ERE Masters program there.

Paris

May 2nd, 2017

I was in Paris in late April for this year’s PEM & ENM lectures…. with a focus on front-end theory & political economy issues associated with carbon trading, as well as China’s new efforts in this area. Sidney Lambert-Lalitte agreed to tackle the middle ground: the EU ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme), & efforts over recent years to accomplish reforms in this key arena. I outlined America’s important historical intellectual contributions to pollution control ideas & economic theory…. but made no attempt, however, to justify its current political idiocy.

You might have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of an ‘modernist’ architectural binge lately…. taking ‘mid-century modernism’ tours in California, checking out Gaudi’s “Catalan modernisme” works in Barcelona, etc., etc. So I decided to use this Parisian visit to visit one of the godfathers of the movement: Le Corbusier.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who adopted the name Le Corbusier, was a Swiss-born architect who later became a French citizen. I mentioned in the recent Palm Springs posting that Albert Frey, the architect who designed that city’s earliest modernist buildings, had worked for the French architect in Paris – and Le Corbusier had a similar influence on architects all around the world, in both building design and city planning.

La Roche house interior

His buildings were guided by his famous “five architectural principles”: 1) The use of ‘pilotis’ – supporting columns – to carry the structural load of the building; this allowed 2) a free plan, since walls no longer had to bear the weight, and the interior could be freely designed; 3) the building’s façade was similarly freed, and could be made of light materials or even glass; 4) the light façade allowed the use of horizontal/ribbon windows throughout, providing plenty of light for all rooms; and 5) the roof should be flat (not sloping), and available for gardening, flowers and other (usually outdoor-type) domestic purposes.

These principles can be found in many of the Palm Springs (& numerous other) buildings, but the real showcase for them was Villa Savoye, a house Le Corbusier designed and built in the late 1920s/early 1930s in Poissy, a town about 25 km (15 miles) west/northwest of Paris. One of the exhibits at the Fondation Le Corbusier headquarters (located in the La Roche house in Paris’ 16th arrondissement) had a video showing various stages of construction at the Villa Savoye….. & so after checking that out, I hopped on the Metro & RER and headed to Poissy.

Villa Savoye

I find both the La Roche house and the Villa Savoye visually pleasing…. although I don’t think I’d like to live in either one of them. I had just come from a comfortable, heavy, stone-solid chateau in the south of France (see posting below)…. & suspect that that might have influenced my views. But I also routinely use Le Corbusier’s city planning ideas in the urbanization portions of my environmental lectures – as an example of what NOT to do. Most people are very glad that his ‘Plan Voisin’ was never built, as it would have wiped out the Marais section of Paris, replacing it with soulless 300 foot towers and a layout well-suited to the automobile instead of pedestrians.

Straight lines & glass & open-floor spacing can certainly be attractive at small scale…. & I tend to think the same thing about modernism itself; it’s nice, but only in small doses.

Plan Voisin for Paris
Credit: Fondation Le Corbusier