Friday, August 28, 2009


In a previous post (KERETA SAWIT- THE TRUTHS), you might have noticed the mention of cellulosic ethanol (CE). For those who don't know, CE is a biofuel made by breaking down cellulose in plant matter and fermenting the resulting sugars. Unlike other ethanol (grain alcohol- which requires the simpler breakdown of sucrose), it does not require food crops, like corn kernels, sugarcane, etc. but can be made from any non-edible part of any plant.

Therein lies CE's first promise; it would have a much higher fuel yield. Since all plants are made up of cellulose, agricultural residue, forestry wastes, paper pulp, fast- growing prairie grasses and even algae could be used for fuel. Switchgrass yields up to 800 gallons of ethanol per acre per year, double that of corn, and equal to the current 'numero uno' ethanol crop, sugarcane, and one acre of algae could even yield up to 5000 gallons a year. These yields are augmented by the fact that CE crops can grow on arid, infertile land unsuitable for food crops. The potency of this combination of factors is revealed in the 2000 acres of algae farms in the Sonoran Desert that could double current U.S. ethanol production.

Plus, CE is also greener than petroleum, obviously, and other ethanol crops. Food crops require carbon belching technologies (aircraft, harvesters) during production, and sugarcane fields are burned to ease harvesting by hand. CE thus has a 85- 91% CO2 reduction compared to petroleum, which is greater compared to corn ethanol (22%), soy biodiesel (68%) palm oil (28%) and sugarcane (56%). CE crops also don't require soil- unfriendly pesticides, fertilizers or irrigation, and require less nutrients, besides causing less or no soil erosion, and providing wildlife habitats. Besides, bags of algae hung outside factories could soak up emissions.

Moreover, the economics (and politics) of CE also look promising. Adopting CE as our main fuel would save on petrol and other biofuel-crop subsidies, like corn. Governments and companies would also save on costs to defend Middle Eastern oilfields, and deprived of a global need for petroleum, Russia and the Middle East can no longer use fuel as political or economic leverage. Still, CE needs to be cheaper than petrol for these benefits to come through; its' current high price is the reason why it's not commercially produced. Since these costs have even forced temporary shutdowns of research reactors, a lot of work does need to be done here.

The next potential benefit of CE is its' actual usefulness as a fuel. CE can be used for almost all the current uses of petroleum; certain types of algae can be used to brew jet fuel. The energy ratios of CE also look promising; its' maximum of 1 unit of energy input to 36 units of enrgy output shames corn (1:1.3), sugarcane (1:8) pal oil (1:7), soy biodiesel (1:2.5) and even petrol (1:10.5). However, current production methods (heating with concentrated acids to hydrolyse cellulose into sugar) inlock only 45% of the energy available in plant matter, compared to the 85% unlocked during oil refining. Scientists, however, think they've found the answer: genetically modifying bacteria which digest cellulose in the guts of termites.

CE is thus in a position where its' surprisingly diverse promises could be killed by its' challenges, which pander to man's worst instincts of greed, mediocrity and molestation of the Mother Earth. These shackles have always restrained us as a species, but now, can we break them?

**For a longer, more detailed version of this article, leave a note in the Cbox, or drop me a comment, with your e-mail add. I'll send this to you as soon as possible. -Noel.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Since 2005, the price of rice has increased 500%, despite farmers reaping record crops. Similar price hikes of other staple crops (corn, wheat, etc.) indicate that world food production can no longer keep up with production. The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, which first doubled production from 1950 to 1990, now needs to turn in an encore performance by 2030, half the time than it did earlier.

With that in mind, it's time to start figuring out the 2nd green revolution, and the first step requires no more than common sense in the form of sustainable farming. Since past green revolution techniques (lots of pesticides and chemical fertilizers) led to depleted aquifers and salinized soils, crop rotation, polyculture, composting, agroforestry, biological control and interplanting with legumes need to be mandated. Green agriculture would preserve and improve soil health, meaning production can be increased without clearing forests, vital in slowing global warming, which also decimated crop yields.

It's also imperative that this revolution be properly brought to Africa. The first never came here due to corruption, mismanagement, rickety infrastructure and cost, which forced Africans to export crops, leaving themselves hungry. Development aid packages should now focus less on industrialization and more on providing hybrid seeds and training to local farmers for sustainable farming. Both types of agriculture- high tech and sustainable- are beginning to take roor, the former via Malawi's Millenium Villages, and the latter through the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) project, so the challenge is to keep them both going.

Farmers' rights and welfare also make up an often overlooked, yet integral, aspect of sustainability. Farmers should be empowered to sell their own produce, eliminating unscrupulous middlemen, and should not be taxed for side products: e.g. selling catfish reared in paddy boxes. Plus, trickery like making high yielding varieties infertile (forcing farmers to keep buying new seeds yearly), coating seeds with chemicals, and sacrificing built in disease resistance during breeding (so that if chemical companies own seed breeding companies, as is common, those companies can sell more pesticides) should all be outlawed so that farmers need not sell their produce to pay for the costs of farming. This will enable agricultural societies to have sufficient food and income.

Of course, biotechnology and targeted breeding are also vital in this revolution. New crop varieties must be created with increased drought tolerance, nitrogen efficiency, pest resistance and photosynthesis rates (making more with existing sunlight and water resources). Unlike in the past, new varieties should produce high varieties without relying on pesticides and fossil-fuel based fertilizers.

The onus is now on governments and scientists to merge immediate results with long term sustainability. I'm praying for food, farmers and fertility, that this Green Revolution may be one of multicoloured harmony.

*For a longer, more detailed version of this article, leave a note in the Cbox, or drop me a comment, with your e-mail add. I'll send this to you as soon as possible. -Noel.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


OK, Warcraft fans reading the title are going to wonder what this is. It's 11.48 p.m, late, by my standards, and I'm musing a few lines in a Warcraft novel (The Last Guardian, by Jeff Grubb).
Here, Medivh and Khadgar ponder the nature of time, in relation to the visions at Karazhan Tower.

The focus of their thoughts is whether or not time is a clock, mechanical and ordered, or an hourglass, a reasonably reliable timekeeper, but random, and unpredictable, since a grain of sand will never end up in the same position twice.

Of course, not being God, it's impossible to really answer the question, but we are all entitled to our choice. I'd go for the hourglass. Maybe because we can never truly predict our actions based on the past. Because humans have a streak of unpredictability that trumps orderly timekeeping. Or maybe I'm posting this because I'm stumped in the process of my next post. (It's currently 2 and a 1/2 pages long, and making it a page long is nigh impossible). A big apology to the Earth for wasting electricity. I won't switch on my air-con later.

Or maybe I will. After all, time is an hourglass. I could never really like an orderly, well- planned universe.

Maybe I will tomorrow.


So ends PPSMI (Teaching Maths and Science in English) another Malaysian Education Experiment, its' guinea pigs unceremoniously discarded and left all the worse for wear. In an act of mitigation, another experiment has been launched, that of boosting the standard of English by longer subject times, recruitment of foreign teachers, etc. Here's why PPSMI was doomed all along, and why its' replacement is a sorry answer.

One of PPSMI's aims was to improve the standard of English among Malaysian school students. Logically, how is this even possible? In both Maths and Science, the language used, be it English, Chinese or Urdu, is direct, terse and functional. Scientific language does not have even a minute grasp of the real beauty and essence of its' language medium. In the decision to teach both subjects in BM, no-one said that this was to improve the standard of BM, rather, the reason given for the reversal was to improve the understanding of both subjects. Similarly, PPSMI's main goal should always have been to make university level Science and Maths jargon easier to grasp, and not for the purpose conceived by the dolts that are our policymakers.

Plus, I doubt very much that the government was even serious about achieving this misguided main goal. Improperly training teachers in English, assigning those same teachers to teach Science and Maths, continuing with bilingual public exam papers, not penalizing spelling and grammatical errors in Science and Maths, etc, etc. In many places, especially rural areas, PPSMI was little more than a translation of textbooks, with little or no effort by teachers to teach and make sure students fully understood the subjects in English. In such a half-past-six environment, it's no wonder the erstwhile opponents of PPSMI were able to find enough ammo to shoot it down.

The replacement for PPSMI seems a rather decent attempt to boost the standard of English among students, and if properly implemented, could open up exciting new possibilities. Malaysian Man Booker Prize-winners! A new culture of literature and greater prominence of public intellectualism! But the new plans do not provide any methods to reverse the decline of the in Malaysian Maths and Science scores on the international stage. The vast, vast majority of scientific jargon is reserved for science, seldom or never used in regular spoken or written language, and will thus never get into English textbooks. This means that students will forever remain unknowing of these terms and at a disadvantage in both higher education and at workplaces. Contrasting language styles of standard, descriptive and scientific language also would result in hilarious and/ or disastrous consequences, mainly misinformation and delays, both intolereable in science.

In short, the soon-to-be-implemented English improvement system should be adopted in tandem with PPSMI. Malaysia needs both a higher level of command of English, and scientists who can hold their own and cooperate on a global stage. It's time to ignore the whining of both rural folks committed to a culture of mediocrity and the so called 'pembela bangsa dan bangsa'. Now's the time to move forward. If you can't take the heat, get out!

Saturday, August 22, 2009


As the year inches closer and closer to its' close, environmentalists are becoming more and more interest in December, the freezing Danish capital of Copenhagen. No, it's not because of Christmas, but because world leaders meet yet again under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. With the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to expire in 2012, widely regarded as insufficient, many regard Copenhagen's outcome as our last shot to save Earth from global warming.

There are three main aspects that Copenhagen must include, aside from a strong opposition io the usual whining from developed nations about the economy and costs. The first is standard: the reduction of emissions, which must now be more drastic, especially when compared to the paltry 7% required under the Kyoto Protocol. Princeton Researchers Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala say that to hold CO2 levels at 450 parts per million ,global emissions must be slashed 50% (or 12 billion metric tons) by 2057. Developing countries, previously "encouraged to develop sustainably", must now be given targets of their own that would allow for sufficient modernization: for example, as a developed country, country X must only emit 20% more CO2 than it did as a developing nation.

Secondly, any agreement reached in Copenhagen must include mandates for restoration of destroyed environments, which have resulted in irresponsibly high CO2 emission: e.g. deforestation via slash and burn. Restoration of such areas would also increase our environment's capacity to offset emissions by absorbing carbon dioxide and filtering the air for other pollutants. The restoration of such areas would provide a host of other benefits beyond emissions reductions, like wildlife habitats, improved soil quality, eco- tourism, and proliferation of water catchment areas.

Lastly, Copenhagen must become a launch pad for a complete shift in human mentality, a beginning for the greater realisation that man is merely a strand in the web of life. True, such a drastic paradigm shift will require far more than a treaty, and here is where Copenhagen's outcome is likeliest to fail, and failure here would be the worst of all. This is because if we fail here, then the perception that man should only preserve Earth for his own sake will begin to take root ("shallow" ecology over deep ecology) . This, in future,could cause a backtrack in genuine green efforts and a beginning in merely avoiding the effects of global warming, such as geoengineering. A treaty, however, could make it mandatory for participating countries to begin massive media campaigns to educate the public about going green.

These are my hopes, and also the hopes of all who really wish for an end to man's arrogance towards the environment. May our politicians turn Copenhagen from a frigid capital to a battlefield of victory for Earth, and not a boulevard of broken dreams.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


It looked bad at the beginning, then seemed to get better. We let our guard down for the barest of moments, and it claimed 4 lives, spread to smaller towns (like Ipoh, where 3 Andersonians have been confirmed sick), and infected a whole lot more. There is precious little that we know about it, and in the face of its ruthless onslaught, we are no more than sitting ducks. For those who have been living under a rock (and you'd be well advised to return there for safety) I'm talking about influenza A(H1N1).

Public vigilance, once very high, fell after media reports that there were no new infections, and that some of those infected had been cured and sent home. This could also be traced to a real weariness of crises, and a burning desire for a return to normalcy. After all, the economy had just imploded, and two great superstars passed on.People stopped washing their hands, stopped stiffling sneezes, and assumed sniffles were just the common cold. Some stopped being serious about their home quarantines.That's how the deaths came.

But its' not all the public's fault. Typical bureaucratic ham-handedness in handling the disease also resulted in the resurgence. Case in point, when certain public institutions of higher education got hit by the virus, the government chose to close down these institutions and send the students home. Honestly, what were they expecting? For the students, young, sprightly, free spirited, men and women, such an occasion would be nothing less than a holiday, and they would thus act accordingly. Dinners with family, outings and excursions with friends, would definitely spread the virus around.

It's sad that this had to happen, especially since I thought the outbreak was dying down. Now that it has, however, it's very prudent to relook and revisit prevention methods. This includes not sneezing in public, staying in if you have a cold and etc. On the government's part, they must immediately focus on acquiring newly-developed H1N1 vaccines, and stop blaming private hospitals. If humans are to be wiped out by a virus, lets at least make sure it's not the flu.