Stem Cell Breakthrough

Stem Cells Seem Safe in Treating Eye Disease

A treatment based on embryonic stem cells clears a key safety hurdle, and might help restore vision.

By Antonio Regalado on October 14, 2014


Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in people over 65.

Transplanted cells appear as a dark spot on the retina of a person with macular degeneration.

When stem cells were first culled from human embryos 16 years ago, scientists imagined they would soon be treating diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and many other diseases with cells manufactured in the lab.

It’s all taken longer than they thought. But today, a Massachusetts biotech firm reported results from the largest, and longest, human test of a treatment based on embryonic stem cells, saying it appears safe and may have partly restored vision to patients going blind from degenerative diseases.

Results of the three-year study were described today in the Lancet by Advanced Cell Technology and collaborating eye specialists at the Jules Stein Eye Institute in Los Angeles, who transplanted lab-grown cells into the eyes of nine people with macular degeneration and nine with Stargardt’s macular dystrophy.

The idea behind Advanced Cell’s treatment is to replace retinal pigment epithelium cells, known as RPE cells, a type of caretaker tissue without which a person’s photoreceptors also die, with supplies grown in laboratory. It uses embryonic stem cells as a starting point, coaxing them to generate millions of specialized retina cells. In the study, each patient received a transplant of between 50,000 and 150,000 of those cells into one eye.

The main objective of the study was to prove the cells were safe. Beyond seeing no worrisome side effects, the researchers also noted some improvements in the patients. According to the researchers, half of them improved enough to read two to three extra lines on an eye exam chart. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell, called these results remarkable.

“We have people saying things no one would make up, like ‘Oh I can see the pattern on my furniture, or now I drive to the airport,” he says. “Clearly there is something going on here.”

Lanza stresses the need for a larger study, which he says the company hopes to launch later this year in Stargardt’s patients. But if the vision results seen so far continue, Lanza says, “this would be a therapy.”

Some eye specialists said it’s too soon to say whether the vision improvements were real. The patients weren’t examined by independent specialists, they said, and eyesight in patients with low vision is notoriously difficult to measure. That leaves plenty of room for placebo effects or unconscious bias on the part of doctors.

“When someone gets a treatment, they try really hard to read the eye chart,” says Stephen Tsang, a doctor at Columbia University who sees patients losing their vision to both diseases. It’s common for patients to show quick improvements, he says, although typically not as large as what Advanced Cell is reporting.

Tsang also questions some of the photographic evidence Advanced Cell said showed the transplanted cells had survived. “It’s a proof of concept that it’s safe, but otherwise it’s hard to reach any conclusion,” he says.

But favorable results are critical for Advanced Cell, a tiny biotech concern in Marlborough, Massachusetts, that has struggled financially. This year it was fined by stock market regulators, and its CEO resigned amid a stock-sale scandal. Lanza says a larger study to prove if the treatment works would “cost tens of millions.”

Perhaps because it needs to raise money, Advanced Cell has previously touted preliminary results from the study, including claiming that one patient, a rancher, essentially regained his vision. But for each such anecdote, there is another patient saying the treatment did nothing. One, Maurie Hill, who has Stargardt’s and has totally lost the central part of her vision, said on her blogthat she was disappointed that she’d experienced no “functional change in vision.”

The Advanced Cell eye studies are important because they are the only clinical trials based on embryonic stem cells in the U.S. One other study, in spinal cord injury, was halted in 2011 when Geron, the company backing it, decided to cancel the program after treating five patients (see “Geron Shuts Down Pioneering Stem-Cell Program”).

But because the eye is easier to treat, there could soon be a small boom in retina studies using embryonic stem cells. The biotech company BioTime said this month that it had asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval to run a small clinical trial. The drug giant Pfizer plans to launch its own study, in which it would transplant larger patches of retinal cells. If that trial moves forward, it would be the first by a large pharmaceutical firm using embryonic stem cells.

“The rationale is clear,” says Magdalene Seiler, a researcher with the University of California, Irvine. “If you can replace the RPE cells you can rescue the photoreceptors. That has been shown over and over again in animal experiments.”

In September, Japanese doctors performed the first transplant of retinal tissue derived from so-called “iPS” cells, which are stem cells that can be created from a person’s own tissue and which match them genetically.


The Energy Efficiency Conundrum

OAKLAND, Calif. — ON Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics to three researchers whose work contributed to the development of a radically more efficient form of lighting known as light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

In announcing the award, the academy said, “Replacing light bulbs and fluorescent tubes with LEDs will lead to a drastic reduction of electricity requirements for lighting.” The president of the Institute of Physics noted: “With 20 percent of the world’s electricity used for lighting, it’s been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4 percent.”

The winners, Shuji Nakamura, an American, and Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano, both from Japan, justly deserve their Nobel, and should be commended for creating a technology that produces the same amount of light with less energy.

But it would be a mistake to assume that LEDs will significantly reduce overall energy consumption.

LED’s are but the latest breakthrough in lighting efficiency. Consider the series of accelerated lighting revolutions ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. In the early and mid-1800s, for instance, “town gas” made from coal was developed and used to illuminate streetlights. Whale oil became the preferred indoor lighting fuel for upper-income Americans until it was replaced by more efficient kerosene lamps. And then, finally, in the late 19th century, the electric light bulb emerged.

Along the way, demand would rise for these new technologies and increase as new ways were found to use them. This led to more overall energy consumption.

From outer space, you can see the results of this long progression of illumination. More and more of the planet is dotted with clusters of lights.

There is no reason to think that the trend lines for demand for LED lighting will be any different, especially as incomes rise and the desire for this cheaper technology takes hold in huge, emerging economies like China, India and Nigeria, where the sheer volume of the demand will be likely to trump the efficiency gains.

Energy-efficient lighting has been, without question, a boon for economic development. Over the past two centuries, the real cost of illumination in Britain has declined by a factor of 3,000, largely because of efficiency improvements, according to the researchers Roger Fouquet of the London School of Economics and Peter J. G. Pearson of Imperial College, London. This cheap lighting technology is used today not just to light our streets, workplaces and homes but for televisions, computers and cellphones.

These productivity improvements are a primary driver of long-term economic growth. Especially in developing economies, cheap, energy-efficient lighting will almost certainly allow poor people to bring modern lighting into their homes much faster than they otherwise would. And that will almost certainly result in faster growth in energy demand globally.

The growing evidence that low-cost efficiency often leads to faster energy growth was recently considered by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency. They concluded that energy savings associated with new, more energy efficient technologies were likely to result in significant “rebounds,” or increases, in energy consumption. This means that very significant percentages of energy savings will be lost to increased energy consumption.

The I.E.A. and I.P.C.C. estimate that the rebound could be over 50 percent globally. Recent estimates and case studies have suggested that in many energy-intensive sectors of developing economies, energy-saving technologies may backfire, meaning that increased energy consumption associated with lower energy costs because of higher efficiency may in fact result in higher energy consumption than there would have been without those technologies.

That’s not a bad thing. Most people in the world, still struggling to achieve modern living standards, need to consume more energy, not less. Cheap LED and other more efficient energy technologies will be overwhelmingly positive for people and economies all over the world.

But LED and other ultraefficient lighting technologies are unlikely to reduce global energy consumption or reduce carbon emissions. If we are to make a serious dent in carbon emissions, there is no escaping the need to shift to cleaner sources of energy.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute, an energy and environmental research center.

The Magic of Sand

From Intelligent Life Magazine


Long Read: sand doesn’t just stick between our toes—it also has a way of getting inside our heads. Rebecca Willis finds eternity, and more, in a grain of it

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013

CLOSE YOUR EYES and picture this. You are walking in the sunshine under a blue sky. On one side of you is a green mass of palm trees, on the other the turquoise of the sea. And under your bare feet is sand, white sand—powdery and silky, soft yet firm—which yields and then holds as you step on it. It sends a sensual thrill from the soles of the feet up into your brain.


Now change the picture. Make the sand beneath you coarser. Turn it to gravel. Make it sharp. It doesn’t work, does it? The sand is essential to the scene. And even if you de-saturate the colour, even if you have rocky cliffs instead of palm trees to your left and a steely sea to your right, the sand under your feet—which may now be greyish—still makes you want to take off your shoes and wriggle your toes into it.

To the travel industry, every beach is white. And it is no coincidence that white sand is, for most of the developed world, a long-haul flight away and associated with wealth, just as a tan was in the early years of the jet engine. The things we desire, or are encouraged to desire, often follow the money.

The place the beach occupies in the Western imagination today has changed dramatically in the 300 years since “Robinson Crusoe” was published. Then it was a hostile, dangerous frontier, next to the wild unknown of the sea. It reeked of shipwrecks, invasions and the treacherous business of fishing. But it is telling that even then Daniel Defoe transposed the tale of Alexander Selkirk, in part his inspiration for Crusoe, from a temperate, rocky island off the coast of Chile to a sunny Caribbean one with beaches. Sailors exploring the South Pacific were understandably seduced, after many hard months at sea, by the warm waters, fresh food and sexual freedom of the islanders, and their tales travelled back to Europe. But the reality was that, until man’s dominion over nature became more assured—until sun cream and vaccinations against diseases—the tropical seaside was an unfriendly place to find yourself, sometimes fatally so.

Pale sand may be most prized, but sand of any shade has a hotline to our senses; we want to touch it and mould it and play with it. That is why hotels in the Caribbean don’t replace their beaches with concrete, even though they may be in annual danger of being whisked away by a hurricane. Perhaps warm sand beneath our soles triggers atavistic memories of our ancestral home in Africa, or perhaps it is simply the opposite of our hard, urban streets. Either way, sand exerts its magnetism with extra force at this time of year, the holiday season for the northern hemisphere. But what exactly is this stuff that draws us irresistibly to the coast? How did it develop the power to create new migration patterns in homo sapiens? And why has it lodged itself so firmly in our collective psyche?

I GREW UP in a village called The Sands, near which some of the best building sand in England is gouged out of the earth by huge diggers (sand has been used in concrete since it was invented by the Romans 2,000 years ago). Attending church on Sundays as children, we used to sing—without any sense of irony—a hymn with the chorus: “Oh, build on the rock and not upon the sand…”. We were too young to realise that this was just a metaphor for religious purposes, exploiting the shifting nature of sand. And we didn’t know that in fact well-drained, well-compacted sand makes a good base for building on. The actual sandpits were strictly out of bounds to us and had an aura of strange magic: there were rumours of escaped pet terrapins which had grown to gargantuan size and lurked in their muddy waters, and of teenagers drowning in twining weeds that pulled them under the surface. These myths, perhaps started by parents, cast their own spell: we did not venture beyond the barbed wire.


Sand used for building, such as this, and the sand of beaches outside the tropics—70% of the world’s sand, in fact—is made of quartz, also known as silica, produced by the grinding and scouring of millions of years of weathering and glaciation. The sand of tropical beaches is different. It is “biogenic”, or produced by life processes, and consists largely of calcium carbonate: the ground-up remains of shells, coral and the skeletons of marine creatures (the parrotfish is known as the “sand maker” because it feeds on coral and excretes sand). That is the simple explanation for the difference in colour—sand in the English Channel is never going to be travel-brochure white like sand in the tropics, even if the sun does shine.

The composition of sand varies greatly according to the rocks and conditions, but it is defined on the invariable Udden-Wentworth scale, which uses sieving to determine and average out grain size: from 0.0625mm to 2mm is sand, anything bigger is gravel, and anything smaller is silt. The smallest grains of sand are invisible to the naked eye, and a grain of sand starts its life the size of the crystal that made up its parent rock. Because this scale applies to all granular material, it means that salt and sugar are technically sand. Come to think of it, a beach made of sugar might be just the thing for modern man.

Of all granular materials, those we call sand are the most mobile in water. Mud sticks, stones are too heavy: sand is the traveller of the granular family, riding the winds and the waves. And like a traveller, it has a tale to tell. The type of mineral betrays its place of origin, a fact now used to help solve crimes. The shape speaks of its journeys—desert grains are rounder than sand eroded by water, which cushions it. And sand reveals age, too: exposure- or luminescence-dating measures the amount of radiation to which it has been subjected, and can determine the age of archeological finds way beyond the reach of carbon dating, as with the cave paintings of the Kimberleys in Australia, thought to be—at up to 60,000 years—the oldest images we have of the human figure.

People who love sand are called arenophiles, from the Latin harena for sand, which was spread over the floor of the Colosseum in Rome to soak up the blood of combat, and which also gives us the word arena. (What that leaves arena-lovers to call themselves, I don’t know.) Sand has properties which even the non-arenophile may be able to appreciate. It is self-sorting: grains of the same size group together, as the different ingredients in a box of muesli do; that is why, when the grains are different colours, you can find exquisite, painterly patterns left by the tide on a beach. When sand is poured into a pile, the slant of the slope made by the edge of the pile is called the angle of repose—the bigger the grains, the steeper the angle of repose; and for an hourglass to work properly, the angle of the slope in the glass must equal the angle of repose of the sand (which is often not sand, in fact; in the early days of hourglasses it was sometimes ground-up eggshells). Sand behaves more like a liquid when it is dry, but more like a solid when wet—so perhaps walking on dry sand is the nearest we get to walking on water. And the processes of erosion that make sand do not discriminate—on the Normandy beaches where the D-Day landings took place, there are sand-sized fragments of steel.

Most of these facts I learned from an engaging and exhaustive book, “Sand—A Journey Through Science and the Imagination” by Michael Welland (OUP). He is a London-based geologist—not, he explains, a sedimentologist, which means a dedicated sand man. But he is a fan. “Sand”, he says, “sculpts the landscapes of our planet and reveals the history of the Earth.” Without it, there would be “no concrete, no glass, no silicon chips and a lot less jewellery”. It is hard to conceive of modern life without sand—and therein lies a problem: we are using sand faster than the planet can replenish it. “We think of sand as something that’s just there,” he says, “but it is not a sustainable resource.” Whole islands are being wiped off the map as man develops the planet, especially by making concrete and extracting valuable minerals. Fracking—the great energy hope of the moment—devours vast quantities of sand. And most of the world’s beaches are undergoing erosion—partly from natural causes and partly because civilisation in coastal areas is “completely perturbing the natural balance of a highly complex system, by removing dunes, building breakwaters, and replacing sand that is removed…with the wrong kind of sand”.

Welland hoped his book would surprise the reader—and it does—but some of his findings surprised him, too. “The microscopic life in between the grains on the beach is truly astonishing.” Tiny invertebrates called meiofauna live there. “If you pick up a handful of wet sand at the beach, you are holding a miniature zoo. And these little critters keep the bad bacteria on the beach under control and relatively odourless for us. The diversity of life in the spaces between the grains of sand is greater than the diversity in the rainforest.” Beach sand is, literally, full of surprises.

Some people are not content to let sand trickle through their fingers. Tourists visiting Alum Bay in the Isle of Wight or the Negev Desert can buy jars containing multi-coloured layers of sand. Hard-core arenophiles collect sand in its many guises as a hobby, and may belong to the International Sand Collectors Society, which has no apostrophe but does have a quarterly newsletter called, what else, The Sand Paper. In the Netherlands, Loes Modderman photographs sand through a monocular zoom microscope and arranges her pictures on her website; you can then click on a map and see the colour palette of the sands from that part of the world. What I’m saying is that sand gets under other people’s skin, not just Michael Welland’s. Even so, there are places you don’t want it to get: in your shoes, in your eye, in your bed (whatever you plan to do there). Its propensity to be an irritant is in inverse proportion to its size, and doesn’t always result in a pearl: “a spanner in the works” can be translated into French as sable dans l’engrenage—sand in the gears.

REGENT’S PARK, LONDON, on a bright spring day. The playground is humming with activity. Children are shinning up climbing frames, swinging along monkey bars, propelling themselves down slides. And they are making a noise about it, yelling and raising their voices excitedly. Except in the sandpit. Here they are playing with an intense, quiet concentration; they fill buckets with sand, they pour it and pile it up into huge mounds, they fashion it into crenellations, they burrow and dig tunnels. Periodically, a child discovers that sand is fun to throw, at which point a parent steps forward and remonstrates. But mostly, all is calm.

Nearby, in Primrose Hill, is a nursery school called Ready Steady Go. The principal, Jennifer Silverton, agrees that sand has a soothing effect on children. “So does water,” she says, “natural materials are more calming than all the bright plastic stuff. They love exploring the properties of sand. Sometimes we freeze it for them to play with, though of course play and work are the same at this age. The thing about playing with sand is that it is open-ended, not goal-oriented, so it gives children such confidence. Unless of course”, she adds wryly, “they have a parent who is keen on sandcastles…”

You see plenty of those at the seaside: whole families spend long, focused hours building sand forts, sand cars, sand dams and pools, and bury each other up to the neck (though in the Mediterranean it often seems to be the British families doing this, while the locals look on from their loungers). In some resorts the goal-orientation goes a stage further, with sandcastle competitions, and entries as big as houses.

Sand is also used in healing. In sandplay therapy, which uses Jungian theories of the unconscious, the patients create a scene in a tray of sand which is an externalisation of their inner world. Kate Loiseau, chair of the British and Irish Sandplay Society, tells me that it is used in hospitals, social services and prisons. “In the sand room there are two trays on a table, one of dry sand and one of wet, and a collection of figures and objects which the patient can select and which have symbolic value. It is witnessed by a therapist who may have an interaction if the patient wants to talk, but may not.” She has seen the treatment help patients ranging from severely depressed adults through people with marriage problems to children injured in accidents. “Sand”, she says, “works directly with the unconscious. You can mould it, put water in it, construct it. It has a light feeling, a freeing feeling.”

Shifting sand dunes of the remote Skeleton Coast

WALKING ON A beach feels natural. We are born barefoot and our ancestors went shoeless; we were not designed to walk on pavements. Biomechanically, walking on soft, dry sand is good, because it doesn’t send shock-waves through our skeletons and because our feet can adopt the angle to the ground that suits them, rather than the other way round (many people are pro- or super-nated; their feet don’t really want to be flat). As we walk, the sand is also massaging our feet and exfoliating them at the same time. But that is a modern view of the beach: mankind has not always felt so drawn to it.

The Romans were beach-worshippers and the ancient Greeks were great swimmers, but in Europe by the end of the Dark Ages the beach had gone back to being an ambiguous, even menacing, place rather than a centre of leisure. Populations moved north to cooler climates, and the Judaeo-Christian tradition was not big on promoting sensual pleasures. In their book “The Beach: A History of Paradise on Earth” (Pimlico), Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker deftly describe how the beach became fashionable again. Several factors combined to bring about its renaissance: the sights and lessons afforded by the Grand Tour, the existing culture of mineral spa bathing, which had survived down the centuries (though sometimes with a bad reputation), and Edmund Burke’s doctrine of the sublime, set out in a treatise in 1757, which described the sea as producing “a sort of delightful horror”. These three threads twined around each other to draw people to the seaside, and gradually beach resorts began to appear on the coasts of England and then of northern Europe, with their boardwalks, grand hotels and casinos. Over time, the humble fishing village of Brighthelmstone was transformed into the beach resort of Brighton, a social hub patronised by royalty.

Therapeutic sea bathing in the middle of the 18th century consisted of stepping down from your horse-drawn bathing machine into the cold Atlantic and being dunked under the waves by people employed as “dippers”. It was considered harmonising and revitalising, a cure for melancholy and spleen, and by the turn of that century it was not uncommon to find ailing aristocrats drinking a pint of sea water a day for their health—sometimes mixed with milk to make it taste better. The sand itself was merely an obstacle to be crossed en route to the water, and hard sand was preferable because it made it easier to manoeuvre the horses and the bathing machines. No one thought of lying on it, let alone spreading out a towel and sunbathing; dipping tended to happen early in the day to avoid the sun’s rays, which were thought to dry out the body and might give the skin a tan, which was working-class.

The Romantics loved communing with nature on beaches, just as they loved doing it with mountains and water-falls and all facets of the natural world that were awe-inspiring. Wordsworth’s “Evening on Calais Beach” was part of this repositioning of the beach as a place of deep meaning; “the mighty Being is awake/And doth with his eternal motion make/A sound like thunder—everlastingly” is how he writes about the sound of the sea on the shore. The Impressionist painters were also drawn to the beach, by the social tide as well as the shimmering light conditions, and Boudin, Manet and others documented the business of seaside life, with bonnet ribbons blowing in the breeze and angular parasols and bathing huts against long, milky horizons.

The Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine meant that there were workers clustered in cities and the means to transport them for day trips to the seaside. The working-class resorts of the Victorian age burgeoned, with their gaudy entertainments and saucy postcards, and Thomas Cook started organising weekend excursions. The smart, monied set was moving on anyway: the first steamships had crossed the English Channel in 1816, and the French and Italian Rivieras were becoming fashionable—though they still had a medicinal role, this time as a cure for tuberculosis.

Bathing machines had given way to elaborate bathing costumes, which used yards of fabric in the interests of modesty (but not of buoyancy). These got smaller over time to the point where, in 1917, the American Association of Park Superintendents issued the “Bathing Suit Regulations”, setting out in detail what was acceptable wear at the beach and what was not. It was emblematic: the last gasp of the Victorian mindset before the first world war blew it out of the water and society changed irrevocably.

By the early 1920s, fun at the beach was the antidote to the trauma of the war years, bathing costumes had shrunk further, and beaches were thronged at midday when the sun was at its height. Noel Coward wrote in Vogue of the Venice Lido: “Every square inch of fine, powdered sand is churned up by the passing of unnumerable [sic] toes and dented and depressed by recumbent sun-blistered bodies of various nationalities.” The sun-seeking beach culture that persists today—though with more health warnings—had begun.


IN THE DESERT, sand dunes are forever moving in the wind, and a sandstorm can swallow a whole village; our planet may be solid, but it has moving layers on its surface. Grains of sand eroded from rock are carried by rainfall and rivers to the sea, where they are deposited on the continental shelf and moved around by time and tide, wind and water. They form sand bars, barrier islands and beaches…and they can un-form them, too. Man wants to subject sand to his will—much money and energy is spent on coastal defences—but sand is like Thursday’s Child: it has far to go.

It is this mobility, the ephemeral, shifting nature of sand, that has created its symbolic power. Not only are beaches themselves what academics are fond of calling “liminal spaces”—thresholds, in-between zones—but the material of which they are made is ambiguous too. Because sand is moving and temporal, it has gathered associations of mortality and time. We know that its smallness and smoothness are the result of aeons of erosion and weathering: it is geological time made visible. It speaks of eternity on a human scale in a way that a mountain in its vastness cannot. The phrase “the sands of time” barely even registers as a metaphor.

A footprint in the sand on the seashore, here and then gone, is an inescapable symbol of our brief lives. The equation of sand and the passage of time must also have to do with the invention of the hourglass, or sandglass, which first appeared in the 14th century. It was used in dead reckoning in navigation: a rope, with knots in it at intervals, was let out into the sea, and the number of knots that went out while the sand ran through a 30-second glass told the ship’s speed, in knots. It was also used for measuring watches on board: a half-hour glass had to be turned every 30 minutes, and a bell rung; eight bells was the end of a four-hour watch. Perhaps because—unlike the timepieces that came along to replace it—the hourglass measured a span, a miniature lifetime, it soon became a symbol of mortality. It was used as a memento mori, appearing on gravestones and sometimes even being placed in a coffin with its occupant.

Most of us are used to the idea that sand is created from rock by weathering, but less familiar is the idea that it can be turned back into rock again. “Sand grains originally born from granite long ago”, Welland explains, “may accumulate, be buried, and become naturally glued together, lithified (from the Greek for stone or rock) into…a sandstone. When this, in its turn, is exposed at the surface, it is attacked by weathering and the sand grains are liberated again. The whole process is cyclic, over and over again.” He estimates that half of all quartz sand grains have completed that circuit—been turned to stone and then reborn—six times.

The true age of our planet is hard to grasp, and for me those six cycles are a far more helpful way of doing so than talk of millions of years. Lithification and liberation are the planet’s circle of life, hugely longer and vaster and wider than the animal one Elton John sang about in “The Lion King”. Not dust to dust, but sand to sand. When William Blake wrote, in 1803 or thereabouts, of seeing “a world in a grain of sand”, his words were truer than he could possibly have known.

Rebecca Willis is an associate editor at Intelligent Life

Photographs Plain Picture

More Problems in Africa

Ebola Strikes Again

(CNN) — A young boy wanders through the high grass, looking lost after attending church services in Kakata, Liberia.
The child, Moses Kallie, wears a black T-shirt that’s too big for him. It reads “Trouble is my middle name.”
Trouble has certainly come into his life. He’s lost 13 of his relatives recently — his parents among them. They were all killed by Ebola. His village is a hotspot for the virus.
Desperation grows in heart of Ebola zone
So far 1,578 people are believed to have died from Ebola in Liberia alone, according to the latest numbers from the World Health Organization. The country has seen a 52% of increases in cases in just the past three weeks.
That’s in large part because there is little or no outside medical help for residents who get sick there.
Searching for the answers: Can the world stop Ebola?
In Monrovia, the country’s crowded capital, doors to hospitals and clinics are shut tight, locked with thick padlocks. Many health care workers in West Africa have lost their lives due to the way the virus spreads — through contact with bodily fluids from those who are infected. On Monday, the World Health Organization urged the affected countries to give health care workers both the adequate security and safety equipment they need, as well as appropriate education and training on infection control.
A new Ebola clinic opened in Monrovia this week, but bodies lay on the ground outside its walls. Ambulances filled with Ebola patients, some that have traveled seven hours to get there, are not unloaded. Without help to get them inside, the patients fall in the dirt, mere feet away from treatment.
Without help, family members must care for these Ebola patients. And without the proper safety equipment, they too fall sick and Ebola continues to spread. The virus forces the local dead body management teams to work 12 hours a day, six days a week. All for a paycheck of $300 to $500 a month.
Why I became a human guinea pig for Ebola
Dressed from head to toe in white protective suits and thick goggles, the burial teams try to stay safe, but nothing can shield them from the unspeakable horrors they’ve seen when they make their regular rounds. On Friday, Kiyee described what he saw when he entered a home:
“I took the key and opened the door and went in and saw a 6-month-old child licking on the mother’s skin,” said Kiyee. The mother was lying on her stomach. She had died from Ebola. The baby was searching for the mother’s milk. “Right away I started shedding tears.”
WHO said on Monday the overall death toll in the Ebola outbreak has risen to 2,803 in the five countries at the heart of the epidemic: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal.
When people go out in public, they are encouraged to take whatever precautions they can. In Monrovia, people get their temperatures taken wherever they go — at the grocery store, the office and at church. A fever is one of the early symptoms of the disease.
At the little boy’s church in Kakata, the pastor is both practical and philosophical about Ebola. He has spent his career thinking deeply about death and what happens afterward.
When his congregation asked the Rev. Victor King if he’s afraid of death he said “No,” but “I don’t want to die from Ebola.”
Ebola outbreak: How to help
At his church, he’s called off the part of the service where congregation members shake hands. He tells them not to hug when they see each other, and no one takes communion wine from the same chalice any more. Many in his congregation were at first displeased when he ended that practice, he said. Communion is the high point of the church service and it is central to their tradition of worship.
But he believes the congregation, like many in Liberia, are starting to better understand the disease and how it spreads.
After services, the congregation files out the door and stops at a container the pastor has placed right outside.
The container looks like it should hold a sports drink. Instead, it contains bleach for them to wash their hands. To a person the congregation stops and takes their time to wash up thoroughly.
Anthony Kallah, a teacher, is one of them.
“We are all afraid,” Kallah said. “This is a threatening disease.”

Fracking in China

N A HAZY MORNING LAST SEPTEMBER, 144 American and Chinese government officials and high-ranking oil executives filed into a vaulted meeting room in a cloistered campus in south Xi’an, a city famous for its terra-cotta warriors and lethal smog. The Communist Party built this compound, called the Shaanxi Guesthouse, in 1958. It was part of the lead-up to Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in which, to surpass the industrial achievements of the West, the government built steelworks, coal mines, power stations, and cement factories—displacing hundreds of thousands and clearcutting a tenth of China’s forests in the process. Despite its quaint name, the guesthouse is a cluster of immense concrete structures jutting out of expansive, manicured lawns and man-made lakes dotted with stone bridges and pagodas. It also features a karaoke lounge, spa, tennis stadium, shopping center, and beauty salon.

The guests at the compound that week were gearing up for another great leap: a push to export the United States’ fracking boom to China’s vast shale fields—and beyond. Attendees slid into black leather chairs behind glossy rosewood tables, facing a stage flanked by large projector screens. Chinese businessmen wore high-waist slacks with belts clasped over their bellies. I watched as one thumbed through business cards bearing the logos of Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Halliburton. Behind closed doors, a select group of Chinese and American officials and executives held a “senior VIP meeting.” Outside, a troop of People’s Liberation Army guards marched in tight formation.

The US-China Oil and Gas Industry Forum, sponsored by the US departments of Commerce and Energy, as well as China’s National Energy Administration, has convened for the last 13 years. But the focus turned to shale gas in 2009, when President Obama and then-President Hu Jintao announced an agreement to develop China’s immense resources. The partnership set the stage for companies in both countries to forge deals worth tens of billions of dollars.

Here at the 2013 conference, the first American to take the podium was Gary Locke, the US ambassador to China at the time. He wore a dark suit and a striped red-and-purple tie; his slick black hair glistened in the fluorescent light. “From Sichuan to Eagle Ford, Texas, from Bohai Bay to the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Ohio, US and Chinese companies are investing and working together to increase energy production in both countries,” he proclaimed. US and Chinese companies were so tightly knit, Air China had recently started offering nonstop flights between Beijing and Houston, “making business trips much quicker for many of you gathered here.”

The soft, static voice of a Chinese interpreter seeped from the headphones as young women in red vests quietly passed through each row, pausing to pour hot tea, their strides almost synchronized. Tiny plumes of steam arose from the teacups lining each table, like miniature smokestacks. It seemed fitting, because underlying all the talk of new energy was an urgency to wean China from its decades-long addiction to coal. Locke promised that shale gas would do just that: “We can make further strides to improve energy efficiency, produce cleaner energy, increase renewables, and increase supply,” he asserted. “Unconventional gas, especially shale gas, is just the start.”

THERE ARE TWO MAIN REASONS behind China’s newfound zeal for gas. As Michael Liebreich, the founder of New Energy Finance, an energy market analytics firm now owned by Bloomberg LP, put it, “One is to feed the growth. There has to be energy and it has to be affordable in order to continue the growth machine. But the other one is that they’ve got to get off this coal.”
Constituting a whopping 70 percent of China’s energy supply, coal has allowed the country to become the world’s second-largest economy in just a few decades. But burning coal has also caused irreparable damage to the environment and the health of China’s citizens. City officials have been forced to shut down roads because drivers are blinded by soot and smog. China’s Civil Aviation Administration ordered pilots to learn to land planes in low-visibility conditions to avoid flight delays and cancellations. Scientists wrote in the medical journal The Lancet that ambient particulate matter, generated mostly by cars and the country’s 3,000 coal-fired power plants, killed 1.2 million Chinese people in 2010. In late 2013, an eight-year-old girl in Jiangsu Province was diagnosed with lung cancer; her doctor attributed it to air pollution. And earlier this year, scientists found that up to 24 percent of sulfate air pollutants—which contribute to smog and acid rain—in the western United States originated from Chinese factories manufacturing for export.
“The air quality in China has reached a kind of tipping point in the public consciousness.”

“The air quality in China has reached a kind of tipping point in the public consciousness,” says Evan Osnos, The New Yorker’s former China correspondent and author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. “The entire Chinese political enterprise is founded on a bargain: We will make your lives better, if you’ll allow us to stay in power.” As more Chinese citizens demand clean air and water, China’s leaders and foreign businessmen have taken drastic measures to get rid of pollution. Some local officials have tried to wash away soot by cloud seeding, a process in which chemicals are rocket-launched into clouds to make it rain. One company is developing a column of copper coils that will use electric charges to suck soot out of the air like a Hoover. Environmental officials in the northern city of Lanzhou attempted to level its surrounding mountains to let the wind blow the soot away—not to be confused with the city’s actual plan to demolish 700 mountains in order to expand its footprint by roughly the area of Los Angeles.
More: The Atlantic’s James Fallows on the politics of China’s environmental crisis
But China’s push to wean itself from coal has also triggered a rush to develop alternative power sources. The natural gas that lies deep within its shale formations is now a top contender. By current estimates from the US Energy Information Administration, China’s shale gas resources are the largest in the world, 1.7 times those in the United States. So far, fewer than 200 wells have been drilled, but another 800 are expected by next year. By then, China aims to pump 230 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually from underground shale—enough to power every home in Chicago for two years. By 2020, the country expects to produce as much as 4.6 times that amount. It’s moving at “Chinese speed,” as one energy investment adviser put it—the United States took roughly twice as long to reach that volume.
Yet just as fracking technology has crossed over from the fields of Pennsylvania and Texas to the mountains of Sichuan, so have the questions about its risks and consequences. If fracking regulations in the United States are too weak, then in China the rules are practically nonexistent. Tian Qinghua, an environmental researcher at the Sichuan Academy of Environmental Sciences, fears that fracking operations in China will repeat a pattern he’s seen before. “There’s a phenomenon of ‘pollute first, clean up later,'” he says. “History is repeating itself.”

When my colleague James West and I traveled to China last September, it didn’t take long to see the toll of the country’s coal addiction: James had a burning cough by our second day. On a bullet train from Beijing to Xi’an (roughly the distance between San Francisco and Phoenix), we whizzed along at 150 miles per hour through some of China’s most polluted pockets, including the northeastern city of Shijiazhuang, where the smog registers at emergency levels for a third of the year—twice as often as in Beijing. A thick miasma hung heavy, clinging so low to fields of corn that it was hard to see where the earth met the dark, gray sky. Every few minutes we passed another giant coal-fired power plant, its chimneys spewing a continual billow of thick, white smoke.

By the time of our trip, villagers living near fracking wells had already complained about the deafening noise of drilling machinery, the smell of gas fumes, and strange substances in their water. One night last April, in a small southwestern town called Jiaoshi, an explosion at a shale gas drilling rig rattled residents awake, triggering a huge fire and reportedly killing eight workers. In the wake of the accident, an official from the Ministry of Environmental Protection said, “The areas where shale gas is abundant in China are already ecologically fragile, crowded, and have sensitive groundwater. The impact cannot yet be estimated.”

“WE CALL THIS SHALE COUNTY,” the driver shouted to us in the backseat as he steered the four-wheel-drive SUV up a steep mountain in Sichuan Province. The clouds faded as we climbed, revealing a quilt of farmland dotted with pingfang, or flattop houses. We drove down a road lined with new hotels, small restaurants, and hardware stores—the markings of a boomtown. Roughly the size of Minnesota, the Sichuan Basin—where many of China’s experimental fracking wells are located—is home to some 100 million people, many of them farmers. It’s not the only part of China with shale gas, but fracking requires a lot of water, and with a subtropical climate and proximity to the mighty Yangtze River, Sichuan has that, too, making it the nation’s first fracking frontier.
With each turn, the road became narrower and muddier, until we stopped at a gate behind which a tall red-and-white drilling rig shot up as high as the lush mountains surrounding it. We were at a shale gas well owned by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of the nation’s largest energy companies and its leading oil producer. Most of China was on holiday that week to commemorate 64 years since Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic, but out here there was no sign of rest. Workers in red jumpsuits drove by in bulky trucks. A drill spiraled 3,280 feet underground in search of shale gas, screeching as it churned around the clock.

An engineer whom we’ll call Li Wei greeted us, peering out from under a hard hat. In his mid-20s, with a brand new degree, Li worked for a Chinese energy firm partly owned by Schlumberger, the Houston-based oil service company. Last July, Schlumberger opened a 32,000-square-foot laboratory in the region devoted to extracting hydrocarbons from shale gas resources. Like many other engineers at China’s new wells, Li had never worked on a fracking operation before. We watched as he shooed away neighborhood kids playing by a brick structure straddling a pool marked “hazard” as though it were their tree house.

At first, Li said, drilling here didn’t go so smoothly: “We had leaks, things falling into the well.” They had to slow down operations as a result. Still, the team planned to drill and frack about eight other new wells in the area in the coming months.

China’s early fracking operations face many risks, but the incentives to keep drilling are too good to pass up. Based on early sampling, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Liebreich estimates that China is currently extracting shale gas at roughly twice the cost of the United States. Analysts expect those costs to fall as China gains experience, but even at current levels, shale gas production has been up to 40 percent cheaper—and geopolitically more desirable—than importing gas. As China’s demand for natural gas continues to grow—between 2012 and 2013 it grew at 15 times the rate of the rest of the world’s—domestic reserves will become increasingly important, says Liebreich: If China can continue to extract shale gas at the current cost, that “would be a game-changer.” The “golden age” of natural gas that took root in North America, the International Energy Agency declared in June, is now spreading to China.
All that growth comes with a steep learning curve. Fracking requires highly trained engineers who use specialized equipment to mix vast quantities of water with chemicals and sand and shoot it into the ground at high pressures, cracking the dense shale bed and releasing a mix of gas, water, and other sediments to the surface. That’s why service companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton have much to gain: China needs technology and know-how—and is willing to pay handsomely. “Selling the picks and shovels for the gold rush would be the analogy,” Liebreich says.

No wonder, then, that multinational oil and gas giants have pounced. In 2012, Royal Dutch Shell inked a contract with CNPC. A company executive pledged to invest around $1 billion a year for the next several years in shale gas. BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Hess also have signed joint ventures to explore shale prospects with Chinese energy companies. In return, Chinese companies have invested in US fracking operations. Since 2010 the Chinese energy company Sinopec, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), and the state-owned Sinochem spent at least $8.7 billion to buy stakes in shale gas operations in Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming. Chesapeake Energy alone got $4.52 billion out of its deals with CNOOC.

“The reason Chinese oil companies have gone after Chesapeake in the past year was because they wanted to apply the technology to tap the world’s No. 1 shale gas reserves in China,” Laban Yu, a Hong Kong investment analyst, told Bloomberg News. Whether or not China will be able to replicate the American shale gas revolution, it is clearly determined to try.

Breakthrough in Auto Technology – from the MIT Technology Review

Smart Headlight Illuminates the Road without Blinding Other Drivers
Computerized headlights could eliminate glare from oncoming cars while improving visibility.

By Iddo Genuth on September 19, 2014


Although only 25 percent of all driving occurs in the dark, that’s when almost half of fatal car accidents occur.

The CMU-Intel prototype programmable headlight secured to the hood of a vehicle. An acrylic enclosure protects components from dust, dirt, and moisture.

If you hate it when the driver in the opposite lane blinds you with his high beams, or when the glare from the truck behind keeps you from looking in the rearview mirror, a solution might be just around the corner. An experimental programmable headlight automatically adjusts thousands of tiny, individually controlled light sources to prevent other drivers from being blinded while still highlighting signs or obstacles ahead.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Intel developed the prototype headlight, which scans the road ahead using an infrared camera and can locate other drivers and selectively disable the light directed at them, and it can do this at up to 140 miles per hour. Although it reduces glare for oncoming drivers, it doesn’t make the road noticeably darker for the person behind the wheel.

The headlight could perform other useful tasks. It could highlight hard-to-see objects in the dark; show the driving lane when it is not marked or well-lit; project navigational information on the road in front of the driver; or even reduce the glare during a snowfall by distributing light between snowflakes. Improving the ability to drive in the dark and in other low-visibility scenarios could help save at least some of the 32,000 people who die in car accidents each year in the U.S.

Although adaptive headlights already have been introduced in recent years by car manufacturers such as BMW, Audi, Mercedes, and Volvo, they are typically much slower and less finely controlled. They point the way around a corner or dim the lights if a pedestrian is crossing, but they lack the ability to improve lane illumination.
The glare typically seen from high beams is shown on the top; the anti-glare feature of the new headlight is seen below.

The Carnegie Mellon-Intel prototype includes a camera, a computer, and a digital projector. Information from the infrared camera is processed by a computer that tries to identify relevant objects on the road, such as cars, pedestrians, or road signs. The projector uses a light source that’s 4,700 lumens (much brighter than a halogen headlight) with an array of almost 800,000 micromirrors that can be controlled individually by the computer.

The ability to control the light with so many micromirrors provides a high-resolution, highly tunable system that can also turn on and off every “pixel” in just under one millisecond (the flap of a fly wing takes almost three times as long).

John Leonard, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT who was not involved in the research, says the Carnegie Mellon programmable headlight could improve automotive machine vision. “This is a great example of taking ideas from computer vision and applying them to a challenging real-world problem,” he says. “This is a known stumbling block for self-driving vehicles, and one can envision how the extension of these concepts might lead to better sensors for advanced active safety and driverless car systems.”

The Carnegie Mellon team, which recently presented its findings at the European Conference on Computer Vision in Zurich, Switzerland, is still modifying the prototype, which should be finished within the next six months. Over the next two years the team plans to miniaturize the components and make the system faster. Robert Tamburo, lead engineer for the project, says: “We are currently exploring all options to bring our headlight design to market.”


Gutless Republicans Strike Again

Congress dodges ISIS bill on its way out of town
From Dana Bash, CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014

Is Congress avoiding ISIS debate?
Congress leaves D.C. to campaign full-time, with no vote yet on ISIS
Republicans Democrats for not vote, Democrats blame Republicans
Some members of Congress are openly appalled that their colleagues left town
Washington (CNN) — The smell of exhaust from idling cars fills up the Capitol parking lot. Congressional aides have their engines revved — ready to whisk their bosses to train stations and airports as soon as they cast their last vote.
It’s a familiar scene when Congress is getting ready to leave town, especially for an extended period. But this time the race for a six-week respite feels different.
There is bipartisan consensus that the United States is now at war with ISIS and that Congress should be a part of the decision-making process on how to deal with that, by passing a new authorization for military force.
Bill Clinton: U.S. has proven it can’t win an Iraq land war without Iraqis
Paul’s false charge against McCain Corker: Obama’s ISIS strategy not serious Can ISIS be beat without combat troops?
But Congress took off to go campaign full time to try to keep their jobs rather than staying to do their jobs.
“There is broad agreement in the country that this ISIS group is a threat,” Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, told CNN.
“So why not stay and debate it and not go home if your constituents believe it’s a threat?” we asked.
“I don’t disagree,” Fattah replied. “I’m prepared to vote yes. So I’m not ducking any vote.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, said a few minutes later.
“As if there is not enough to do and it’s not just the war issues, it’s immigration reform, ENDA (Employment Nondiscrimination Act) — it’s a number of different bills that have been filed that have bipartisan support,” Polis said.
It is true that rank-and-file House members, especially those like Fattah and Polis who are in the minority party, don’t have much choice but to follow the schedule leaders lay out.
Still, as we weaved through the slew of waiting cars to talk to lawmakers before they left, it was striking — but not surprising — the way blame was tossed around.
Republicans blamed the Democrat-controlled Senate.
W.H. defends plan to arm Syrian rebels A wary Congress votes to combat ISIS General doesn’t rule out ground forces
“The problem is that we have a do-nothing Senate,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said.
Republicans also blamed the president.
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-North Carolina, said he’d be glad to vote for a new use-of-force authorization against ISIS.
“I wish the President would ask for one,” Hudson said.
Obama: ISIS threat against U.S., allies ‘doesn’t frighten us’
Democrats noted that leaving now has become a tradition to help the House, where Republicans are a majority.
“The House of Representatives runs every two years, and for many, many years the House has adjourned for the month of October.” Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said.
Some senators were openly appalled that colleagues were heading home.
Freshman Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, had publicly urged her colleagues to stay, to no avail.
Brazile: Congress should debate on ISIS Congress to consider Syria strategy Obama: No ground troops to combat ISIS
“We need to be here we need to debate this issue,” Fischer told us.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is on the ballot in November, but hers is a safe seat. Going home to campaign is not her first priority.
“My job is to be in the Capitol working for the people of Maine and the American people and that’s where I think we all belong now,” said Collins, standing in the Capitol parking lot, pointing to the dome.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who won his big primary fight earlier this year and should face an easy reelection in November, had a trademark pithy synopsis.
“We seem to be more worried about who runs the place than how the place runs,” he said.
Ultimately, all the lawmakers who complained and called it important to stay got in their cars and left, too.
There’s no reason to stay — there are no more votes until after the election.


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