Archive for June, 2017

New Orleans

Thursday, 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??


Thursday, 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

Thursday, 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.