The Aral Sea: Environmental Tragedy

By Mark Synnott (NG, Jun 2015)

The Aral Sea straddles Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and for thousands of years was fed by two major rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.  Having no outflow, the sea’s water level was maintained through the natural balance between flow and evaporation.

When Alexander the Great conquered this territory in the 4th century BC, these rivers already had a long history of providing lifeblood to Central Asia.  For centuries the Aral Sea and its vast deltas sustained an archipelago of settlements along the Silk Road that connected China to Europe.  These ancient populations of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazaks, and other ethnicities prospered  as farmers, fishermen, herders, merchants, and craftsmen.

Things changed after the Uzbek S.S.R. became part of the fledgling Soviet empire in the early 1920s and Stalin decided to turn his Central Asian republics into giant cotton plantations.  But the arid climate in this part of the world is ill suited to growing such a thirsty crop, and the Soviets undertook one of the most ambitious [water] engineering projects in world history, hand-digging thousands of miles of irrigation canals to channel the water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya into the surrounding desert.

According to Philip Micklin, geography professor at Western Michigan University who has watched the demise of the Aral Sea first hand:

Up until the early 1960s the system was fairly stable.  When they added even more irrigation canals in the 1960s, it was like the proverbial straw that broke the camels back.  Suddenly the system was no longer sustainable.  They knew what they were doing, but what they didn’t realize was the full range of the ecological consequences–and the rapidity with which the sea would vanish.

By 1987 the Aral’s water level had dropped dramatically, splitting it into two  bodies of water: a northern sea, which lies in Kazakhstan, and a larger southern sea lying with Karakalpakstan.  In 2002 the southern sea got so low it too slit into separate eastern and western seas.  Last July the eastern sea dried up entirely.

The only bright spot in this dire saga is the recovery of the northern sea.  In 2005, with funding from the World Bank, the Kazakhs completed an 8-mile dam on the northern seas southern shore, creating a fully separate body of water, fed by the Syr Darya.  Since the dam was built, the northern sea and its fishery have come back much more quickly than expected.  But the dam was cut off the southern sea from one of its crucial water sources, sealing its fate.

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Why Is My LDS Church Being So Trenchant?

In a recent document to be read to members in July (2015), the LDS Church leadership comments on the recent SCOTUS ruling regarding same-sex marriage:

Consistent with our fundamental beliefs, Church officers will not employ their ecclesiastical authority to perform marriages between two people of the same sex, and the Church does not permit its meetinghouses or other properties to be used for ceremonies, receptions, or other activities associated with same-sex marriages.  Nevertheless, all visitors are welcome to our chapels and premises so long as they respect our standards of conduct while there.

The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility–even when we disagree.

So we lose the court case (thank goodness), and now we want to continue to discriminate (on religious freedom grounds).  The last sentence above is a mockery of the previous paragraph.  How do we show love and compassion by excluding and discriminating?

The above sounds more like it was written by a corporate lawyer than by representatives of Christ.

Additionally, J.a.t. at Times and Seasons wonders about funerals.  Does the above discrimination extend to funerals?  “I know that there are painful instances of wards refusing to allow a funeral [on] “worthiness” issues, which is so preposterous to me.”  Stay tuned, there is more pain to come.

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Contrarian Thoughts Concerning Do-gooding (Altruism, Charity)

Providing humanitarian aid and economic assistance to developing countries has always been a controversial subject.  Two recent articles in a popular magazine and journal provide some contrarian reactions to popular beliefs.

Sarah Begley in Time (6 & 13 Jul, 2015) suggests that quitting your job and moving to the troubled spot may not be an ideal solution, even if you are a doctor.

When British doctor Greg Lewis felt called to contribute more to the world, he looked into leaving the U.K. to serve less fortunate patients.  That seemed a better way to do good than working in a pristine hospital.

But when he crunched the numbers, they told a different story.  By treating patients in a poor country, he calculated he might save 4 lives a year.  By choosing a specialty at home home and working toward an annual salary of $200,000, he could donate up to half to a charity providing antimalarial bed nets–saving dozens of lives per year.  As William MacAskill explains in his forthcoming book, Doing Good Better:  Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference, Lewis chose to earn in order to give.

She also reports about boycotts:

[William} MacAskill takes an irreverent approach to the rules of charity, suggesting that impulsive altruism can often do more harm than good.  Boycotting brands that use sweatshops, for example, risks putting workers out of much-needed jobs with better conditions than they would otherwise find.

David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2015) take a swipe at at microfinance:

In the light of scientific evidence, some popular development ideas have been shown to have limited impact.  take microfinance, once seen as the game-changing solution to extreme poverty.  A body of evidence now shows that although providing small loans increases people’s consumption of basic goods and services in the short term, it does not achieve the transformative purpose of significantly lifting their incomes.

On a more positive side, the two authors report favorably on cash transfers:

Evidence-based solutions create a major opportunity for donors and agencies to make aide more productive.  Yet in many instances, their practices remain out of step with the data.  Take cash transfers.  As a substantial body of evidence now shows, money not only helps people buy essential items; it also helps families raise their income, so they can send their children to school rather than work.  Yet between 2009 and 2013, only an estimated 1.5 to 3.5 percent of humanitarian aid went to cash.

So you might want to consider keeping your job, but increasing your charitable contributions.  You might want to second guess a decision to boycott.  Personally, I’m supportive of microfinance (but I would like to see it combined with grants).  I also see a role for direct cash transfers.  For example, in Uganda it costs money to send children to school.  For poorer Ugandans, this money is difficult to come by and frequently causes children to drop out of school.

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Do Robots Need to Resemble Humans?

By Lev Grossman (Time, 8 Jun 2015)

If it takes so much backbreaking math, why teach a robot to walk?  Why bother?

Predator drones don’t walk.  Roombas don’t walk.  R2-D2 doesn’t walk.  The attachment to legs and really the human form at all seems really old-fashioned, even atavistic.  The surface of the earth is a challenging enough environment for a robot as it is.  Why not just put wheels on a robot and call it a day?

This is not an uncontroversial topic in the world of robotics.  The conventional argument in favor of humanoid robots is that they’re better at operating in environments that were built by and for humans.  According to Gill Pratt, who coordinates robotic challenges for DARPA:

Doorways have a certain width, door handles have a certain height, the steering wheel on cars is in a certain place.  All of these things are built for our form.  If you want a machine to adapt to it, that makes a lot of sense.

But there’s room for disagreement on this score.  Colin Angle is one of the world’s foremost roboticists and the CEO of iRobot, a prominent supplier of robots to the military; it also makes the Roomba.  One thing iRobot doesn’t make is humanoid robots.  “Walking robots aren’t particularly  practical,” Angle says.  He prefers wheels or even tank-style tracks–as examples he gives iRobot’s Kobra and PackBot robots, which are marketed to military and civil defense agencies.

They can run up stairs at 5 to 10 mph.  They don’t have to step, and you can drop them off the second story of buildings and they’ll survive.  They’re designed to operate in human-style spaces, but they’re radically simpler solutions than legs.

He supports competitions like the [DARPA’s recent] Robotic Challenge as a way to stimulate innovation, but he points out that when the Fukushima disaster happened, there were in fact rescue robots already available.  They just didn’t look like people.

When push came to shove a few years back, when the world needed a robot to go inside a reactor and help figure out how to shut it down, the robot that went in had tracks.

There are good arguments on both sides.  Jerry Pratt, a lead engineer at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, is eloquent on the topic of the human body’s exceptional mobility and its ultimate superiority to other forms in dealing with rough terrain.

Humans and primates are just so good at getting places.  You can crawl under a table, get on top of the table, move the table, you can climb over a garbage can, you can squeeze between objects.  Imagine a door that’s wedged so it can only open about 10 inches:  a human can get through that, no problem.  The dimension of a human are just really well suited for mobility through a really challenging environment.

Though if there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that walking robots aren’t anywhere near ready for the field yet.

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A Quick Visit to Playgrounds in Kigali, Rwanda

I met a UN contractor through this blog.  We agreed to meet in Kigali, Rwanda, and he would going me some of UN’s work with preschools and primary schools (including playground equipment) in the rural areas around Kigali.

On Sunday (20 Jun 2015), we crossed the border from Uganda into Rwanda.  The next morning, Nathan Gauthier–our guide–took us on a visit to a modern preschool that is currently nearing completion and an established large preschool/primary school with damaged outdoor playground equipment.

The preschool was constructed in a circular shape and included classrooms, composting toilets, kitchen, multi-purpose area, and offices.  It was a nice design, but maybe a little too sophisticated for small children (particularly the toilets).  The playground equipment included a small swing set, a slide (designed to look like a bull), a teeter totter, and a simple merry-go-round.

Swing Set at Kigali Area Preschool

Swing Set at Kigali Area Preschool

The swing set was like many that we had seen in Uganda, except the pendulum portion was simplified (pipe over a small metal bar).  I think the swing sets would be better if they spread the legs at each end of the frame.  The swing seats have only one connection to the chain on each side and they consist of a metal frame with a wooden insert.  I really don’t like this design of the seat.  I would prefer no metal in the seat and a double connection to the chain at each end.  Nathan indicated that the connection attaching the chain to the seat frame is prone to failure.  The swing set was made at the fabricator and then transported to the site.

Metal-framed Swing Seats with Chain Welded Directly to the Frame

Metal-framed Swing Seat with Chain Attached Directly to the Metal Frame

Swing Hangers and Corners for the UN-constructed Preschool

Swing Hangers and Corners for the UN-constructed Preschool

The teeter totter (seesaw) was made of wood.  The design was okay, but Nathan pointed out that the handles need to be more more securely attached and the center pivot was too low to the ground.  Thus there wasn’t much rocking action.  Nathan felt that the pivot machinery was over designed.

Wood Teeter Totter at Preschool Near Kigali

Wooden Teeter Totter at Preschool Near Kigali

At the established preschool/primary school we checked out their playground equipment.  The two swing sets that were in place were similar to the one we had seen at the preschool.  The swings were being heavy used and both bucked (one of the legs came out of the ground as the children were swinging).  This indicates that the legs were not securely buried in the ground.  In fact, 2 of the legs had the scrap metal at the bottom of legs out of the ground.  The scrap is welded to the pipe to anchor the pipe to the concrete and should be underground.  The exposed scrap represents a danger to bare-foot children.  The bucking motion severely torques the welds on the horizontal pipe.

Swing Set at the Preschool/Primary School

Swing Set at the Preschool/Primary School

Exposed Scrap Metal at the Bottom of the Swing Set Legs

Exposed Scrap Metal at the Bottom of the Swing Set Legs

The teeter totter (seesaw) was an even greater problem.   The pivot was too high off the ground.  This made it too hard to get on and off.  If a child got off at one end, the other end would come crashing to the ground.  This is a danger to both the children on the teeter totter and any child that might be under the crashing end.  The seats on the teeter totter were made like metal chairs, a design I don’t particularly like.  At one end of the teeter totter the handles were broken off.

Teeter Totter (Seesaw) that Is too High Off the Ground

Teeter Totter (Seesaw) that Is too High Off the Ground

After this visit we headed back to Uganda and ultimately to Utah, USA.

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An Assessment Visit to the Batwa Pygmy Community in Southern Uganda

The Batwa pygmies were moved from their original homeland when the Impenetrable Forest National Park (best known for its mountain gorilla population) was established.  They’ve had an awkward time adjusting to their new environment which is just adjacent to the park.  We had been invited for a visit and had solar-lighting equipment to deliver.

Twenty-two kilometers outside of Kabale, Uganda, we turned off onto a rough unpaved road for a 76-kilometer (45 mile) drive to one of the entries to the park, Bwindi-Buhoma.  We were there because there are several Batwa communities in the general area.  We were met in Buhoma by Rev. Canon Enos Komunda, Batwa coordinator for the Anglican Church.  He indicated that there are about 900 Batwa around this edge of the park.

The Road to Buhoma is Very Picturesque

The Road to Buhoma is Very Picturesque and Rough

To get to one of the Batwa settlements, we drove up a short distance and then walked about a kilometer.  A newly constructed primary school could be seen from a distance.  We stopped briefly to talk to headmaster and one of his school teachers.  We were looking for a possible location for a future swing set and other outdoor playground equipment.  Because of the steepness of the terrain, we could only immediately locate one site.  We also talked to the school staff about the needs of the school.  The Interethnic Health Alliance, a Utah-based NGO, had provided supplies and cash for the installation of solar-powered lights in the school.

The Batwa School as Seen from a Distance

The Batwa School as Seen from a Distance

From the school, we walked around the small Batwa settlement.  Rev. Enos pointed out several of the projects that are being initiated to improve living conditions including:  raising rabbits, farming, and future fish ponds.  He also mentioned the need for solar-lighting in the small homes.

We eventually stopped at a small two-room Batwa home.  There were 3 women elegantly dressed standing outside.  They were getting ready to head to church.  I asked if we could take a picture and they agreed.

Rev. Enos, Myself, and Batwa Women near Buhoma, Uganda

Rev. Enos, Myself, and Batwa Women near Buhoma, Uganda

After the photograph we were invited inside.  I mentioned that I was from the USA.  The table cloth in the room had a map of the world.  I tried to point out that I had come a long way to get to Buhoma.  I think they understood.  It was a very pleasant experience and hopefully, in the future, we can do more to help the Batwa pygmies.

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Changes in Ugandan Mountain Community of Kyarumba

The small community of Kyarumba, Uganda, is located in the southern end of Rwenzori Mountains (aka Mountains of the Moon).  It straddles a wild river that is prone to flooding.  The community recently got electricity.

Crossing the River that Divides Kyarumba

Crossing the River that Divides Kyarumba

In January 2015, I met up with Hank Pellissier and we spent half a day in Kyarumba, getting to know the needs of the villagers.  Hank provided assistance to a community woodworking-training center and to a science center funded by the Mormon Transhumanist Association and the Christian Transhumanist Association.  My friends and I constructed a 4-seat swing set (with financial assistance from Hank) at the local primary school.

Primary School Children Assembling Under the Swing Set Recently Constructed

Primary School Children Assembling Under the Swing Set Recently Constructed

Yesterday (June 2015), I returned to Kyarumba.  We provided some power tools to the woodworking shop, were entertained by the students at the primary school (where the swing was constructed), and provided educational games (a gift from Hank) to the science center.  The center is well maintained and well used by the local students.

Children in Front of the MTA/CTA Scienc Center

Children in Front of the MTA/CTA Scienc Center

The entertainment provided by the primary school children was great fun.  They sang and danced.  They had personized some of the songs.  During the ceremony, our contact in Kyarumba indicated that the swing set had encouraged children to attend and stay in school.

Even though we were able to spend only 2 hours in Kyarumba, it was a great visit.  We hope to continue our support for this small isolated village.

Posted in Africa, mormonism, Playground, Religion, Science, Social Justice, Technology, transhumanism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment