Thursday, July 12, 2018

Immersion in Pandora: The Virtual World of Avatar


The Immersive Breakthroughs in Avatar, its Many Influences and Borrowings, and the Riddle of Consciousness

 

by Chris McGowan
(published on November 22, 2010)

As a filmmaker, James Cameron is a thrill master, but not a deep thinker. The themes in his films, noble as they are, are nothing new, and his futuristic ideas are old hat compared to what’s explored in the best science-fiction literature. His plots are sturdy and formulaic, designed to entertain but not to innovate. The dialogue can be fun, but is often trite and rarely poetic or profound. Yet the man knows how to enthrall and deliver “shock and awe,” and along the way he inevitably moves the craft and technology of filmmaking up to a higher level. Terminator 2 dazzled with the new CGI effect of morphing; Titanic set a new standard for disaster-movie realism; and Avatar has set the bar higher for digitally created characters and 3D filmmaking. More importantly perhaps, it offers the audience a compelling immersion in a simulated reality, an experience somewhere between watching a movie in a theater and entering a virtual world in cyberspace.

Avatar is a beautiful movie, stunningly so at times, yet it isn’t due to artful cinematography in the sense of poetic images and striking composition. Rather, the visual splendor lies in the inherent beauty of the alien world in which we are immersed. Pandora’s lush rain forest, its colorful flora and fauna, the spectacular gorges and long waterfalls, and the moons and blue Jovian-type planet Polyphemus in the sky are rendered with painstaking detail and depth. Cameron has created a convincing exoplanet environment, worth the price of admission all on its own.

Roger Dean's dragon (left) and Avatar

Visually, Avatar owes a debt to artist Roger Dean, known for his Yes album covers in the 1970s. The film’s floating “Hallejulah Mountains” and dragon-like banshees appear based on the levitating mountains and fantastic dragons of Dean’s fantasy-art paintings. There are also resonances of movies like The Lost World and King Kong in which dinosaurs and exotic bugs roamed tropical jungles. Most of all, Cameron seemed inspired by his post-Titanic fondness of exploring the deep sea in submersibles; he has transplanted the ocean’s bioluminescent fauna and hovering creatures (like jellyfish) in altered forms into a rain-forest environment. [Update: in 2014, a New York judge dismissed  a copyright-infringement suit by Dean.]

More Roger Dean art, including floating islands

At moments, the phosphorescent colors are a little too intense and feel like an interlude in a ‘60s “black light” room full of psychedelic art; of course, this may endear the movie to future generations of chemically altered viewers. My other minor complaint about the Pandoran reality was Cameron’s apparent obsession with optical fibers, tendril-like versions of which keep popping up all over the place, from the Na’vi-animal interfaces to the Tree of Souls. Or perhaps it’s an obscure reference to Carlos Castaneda’s books, which describe us all as being composed of “luminous fibers”?

Avatar may have borrowed some ideas or at least names from the great Russian science-fiction authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky; the brothers’ “Noon Universe” (or “World of Noon”) cycle of novels from the 1960s included a lushly forested planet called Pandora populated by a humanoid race called the Nave. Cameron’s movie also follows in the footsteps of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars novels, as did George Lucas’s Star Wars films. In the John Carter tales, a paralyzed Civil War hero “incarnates” in a facsimile of his own body on Mars, where he fights with and against red and green-skinned Martians, falls in love with a red princess, and encounters many strange beasts.

 Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Some have said that Avatar is yet another story of an individual from a colonialist nation who joins an exploited society, sees the world through their eyes, and becomes a hero or messiah. At the end, he atones for his own culture’s imperialistic sins (call it “white guilt” if you will, but skin color is not the point). Certainly, Avatar owes more than a little to movies like Dances with Wolves, and the Na’vi people resemble lanky ten-foot-tall blue Native Americans and share some of their spirituality. The Na’vi worship nature and have a reverence for all living beings, including those they must kill in order to survive. Avatar decries the genocide of indigenous peoples and the plundering of nature in order to seize natural resources (unobtainium in this case rather than oil or gold). Casting the Cherokee actor Wes Studi (Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans) as the character Eytucan reinforces the Native-American connection on a subliminal level. Yet while Avatar is undeniably political, it is mostly archetypal.

Wes Studi (left) in Dances with Wolves

Avatar takes us on the hero’s journey (as per mythologist Joseph Campbell) or a reluctant hero’s adventure (as per screenwriting courses). Stories of outsiders who enter other cultures, endure trials, and become heroes are heard around the world. And the desire of city folk to experience tribal life, at least via a ripping yarn, has probably been a campfire staple ever since most of humanity moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers and merchants. And doesn’t everyone fantasize about starting life completely anew, in another place or time? (In this case, it’s with an alien body with working legs in a far-away solar system.)

 Avatar's Tree of Souls

The movie’s title and Jake Sully’s conscious immersion in a Na’vi body bring up other spiritual elements. In Hindu mythology, an “avatar” is the manifestation of one deity as another (such as Krishna being an avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu). In video games and virtual reality, an avatar is the on-screen representation of a player, who controls its behavior. For most of the movie, the latter definition applies; the Na’vi is a representation of Jake. He experiences the world remotely through the Na’vi body’s senses and controls it like a puppet, while his consciousness remains in his own body. At the end, his mind is transferred to the new body via the Tree of Souls. In other words, he goes from being a “cyberspace avatar” to a full, new incarnation. When it happens, are those luminous tendrils/fiber-optic cables channeling Jake’s soul (as per much Earthly religious belief) or a neural net that constitutes his mind (as per materialists)? It would appear that they are one and the same on Pandora, as all living organisms are connected there to the same “bio-botanical neural network.” (On our Earth, science is still working out the riddle of consciousness.)

As a story, Avatar offers a recycling of familiar elements; as an experience it breaks new ground. In the near future, we will immerse our minds in interactive simulated realities with next-generation goggles, data gloves, or other devices. Let’s hope they are as beautiful as the Pandoran world in Avatar. Cameron has delivered the most immersive film to date, one that offers a tantalizing glimpse of the future of entertainment in many realms.

Also see: my VFX Voice article about the Avatar: Flight of Passage immersive ride at Disneyland Orlando.
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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Spooky Secrets: A Brief History of Halloween



by Chris McGowan

Night falls and a fierce knocking assails your quiet home. Mischievous laughter resounds outside. You open the front door. Osama bin Laden, Lady Gaga, Barack Obama and a green witch rustle bags and yell “trick or treat.” You hand them candy and send them on their way, to other houses decorated with spider webs, tombstones and glowing hollowed-out pumpkins. By morning, some of these dwellings (usually those with teenage inhabitants) will be decorated with shaving cream and eggs, their trees festooned with toilet paper. Meanwhile, at parties around town, adults dressed as vampires and French maids dance and drink into the wee hours. From whence did Halloween, this peculiar and supposedly all-American holiday, derive?

Druids at Stonehenge

Halloween’s roots lie in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which was celebrated in the British Isles on a full moon around November 1st. Samhain was the most important of the Celtic fire festivals, or holy days, because it was the start of the New Year. The harvest had ended, the last crops had been picked, and a chill was in the air. The dark half of the year was beginning. On the night of Samhain, the Celts believed that the souls of the dead were restless, on the move, and could cross over into the world of the living.

In his book The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween, Jean Markale describes Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”) as an important festival that served to unite the tribe. To commemorate the New Year, fires all over the Celtic world were extinguished the night of Samhain, then relit from ceremonial blazes kindled by Druids, the religious leaders of the pre-Christian Celts. Animals were slaughtered and sacrificed to Celtic deities.“In marking the onset of winter, Samhain was closely associated with darkness and the supernatural,” adds Nicholas Rogers, a York University history professor, in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. “The festival was closely related with prophecy and story-telling.” It was a time out of time, “charged with a peculiar preternatural energy.”


The old ways began to change with foreign influence some two millennia ago. The Romans invaded England in the first century A.D., and their festival for Pomona (the goddess of fruits and trees) may have added light-hearted traditions such as apple bobbing to Samhain. Later, the Celts converted to Christianity, a process that began in England in the 4th century and in Ireland (with the arrival of St. Patrick) in the 5th century A.D. The Christian Church could not utterly abolish the Samhain celebration, but ultimately they co-opted it, intentionally or otherwise, with two alterations of the Catholic calendar.

First, Pope Gregory IV (827-844 A.D.) changed the date of a festival honoring Christian saints to November 1 and called it the Feast of All Saints. The celebration of All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallow Mass or Hallowmas in England. The night of October 31 became All Hallows Eve.

Then, in 998, the French monastic order of Cluny initiated a mass for the souls of the Christian dead, later moved to the day after All Saints Day. The new feast day of All Souls held further resonance for Celts accustomed to Samhain, a time so linked to the spirits of the dead. By the end of the twelfth century, the festivals of All Saints and All Souls (together called Hallowtide in Great Britain) were well-established highlights of the Christian year. And Hallows Eve, which preceded them, had effectively supplanted Samhain, while retaining its aura of eerie mystery. The beliefs that spirits were on the loose and that communication was possible between this world and the underworld survived in All Hallows Eve, as did a few rituals of the Celtic festival, like fire rites and divination.

The church masses of Hallowtide served as insurance against hauntings. As night fell and All Souls’ Day arrived, “bells were rung for the souls in purgatory,” writes Rogers. Across Catholic Europe, “food was laid out for the dead, whose souls were expected to return to their former abodes on All Souls’ Day,” a practice we see today in Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

In England and elsewhere, it was a custom for the rich to give out food in return for prayers, a practice called “souling.” “Soul cakes” (square biscuits with currants) were baked and given to relatives, poor neighbors or beggars on All Souls’ Day. In return, the recipients promised to pray for the dead relatives of the donors. While “soulers” went door to door during Hallowtide, less solemn revelers also took to the streets.

Soul cakes

Costumed folk began a “season of misrule” full of “disguisings, masks and mummeries.” They sang, danced, drank, rode hobbyhorses, cross-dressed and impersonated officials, inverting the established order. Hallowtide had a little of the atmosphere of Carnival or Mardi Gras. Celebrants demanded food, ale, and coins from their neighbors and mocked those who wouldn’t comply. The use of masks on Hallows Eve may have started with these merrymakers; and mummers and soulers asking for donations may have been a precedent for trick-or-treating.

Hallowmas fell out of favor in England during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and All Souls’ Day was eliminated from the calendar. Yet All Hallows Eve continued as a time of supernatural intensity and became popularly known as Halloween in the 18th Century. In Ireland and Scotland, “Halloween was largely untouched by the Protestant Reformation,” writes Rogers. “In the Scottish highlands, hallow fires blazed from cairns and hilltops. In some areas, there were torchlight processions around the fields to ensure their fertility or to ward off evil spirits and witches... many of these customs recalled the fire rituals of Samhain that were to be found in the ancient Celtic sagas.”

Mummery and begging for treats on Halloween continued. In Scottish villages “it was not the deceased themselves who returned but young people who personified the spirits of the dead by hiding their faces under masks and wearing long white robes or grotesque costumes made from straw... they went in search of treats, treats that, of course, represented the offerings made to the deceased,” writes Markale, author of The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. He adds that some carried hollowed-out turnips with a candle inside, representing a wandering spirit. These were called “jack ‘o’ lanterns” after an Irish legend about Jack, a man unwelcome in both heaven or hell, who was doomed to wander the earth eternally.

Halloween was associated with divinatory rituals, omens that foretold marriages or deaths, and premonitory dreams. Families and young woman enjoyed fortunetelling games in the parlor. Meanwhile, outside in the dark night, high-spirited boys were on the loose. Many of the pranks were “threshold tricks,” wherein “doors were nailed shut, windows broken, gates taken off hinges and fences de-picketed,” according to Mark Alice Durant in Dressed for Thrills. The pranksters understood that Halloween “was a night of a different order,” adds Durant.

In North America, Halloween began to arrive in force in the 1840s. Rural immigrants from Ireland flooded into America and Canada because of the Great Potato Famine and brought Halloween customs from their homeland. A steady stream of Scots also carried Celtic traditions to the New World. The restless energy of the “mischief night” found expression in new surroundings: rowdy boys knocked down fences, tipped over outhouses, and wreaked other havoc. And families upgraded a harmless custom, thanks to the new land’s plant life, making jack ‘o’ lanterns out of pumpkins, easily carved into large, grinning demonic faces.

By the late 1800s in North America, Halloween had developed into a family festival full of parties, seasonal foods (pumpkins, maize and apples) and costumes. Ghost stories were told, contests were held, and games were played. Masks for Halloween were on sale by the late 19th century. Retailers advertised candies and nuts for the night. Black cats and bats became Halloween motifs, apparently because of the influence of Edgar Allen Poe and gothic writers.


Halloween lost its religious overtones and changed into a secular, community-oriented celebration. It was no longer regarded as primarily an Irish or Scottish festival, and became a fixture in the North American calendar. Such acceptance did not diminish the pranks committed by young males that night, who now saw Halloween as their best opportunity to let loose. By the 1920s, there was public concern about how wild the night was getting. Mischief often veered into vandalism. Towns and clubs began to organize “safe” Halloween events — carnivals, dances and street fairs — to keep youngsters occupied.

The Halloween decorations of the time were similar to those of today: “Black cats, bats, Jack ‘o’ Lanterns, ghosts and witches predominate. Autumn leaves, cornstalks, fruits and vegetables carry the idea of a harvest celebration. Orange and black crepe paper are indispensable in decorating,” observes an instructional booklet from Boston. Costumes were typically homemade, often from sacks, old clothes, soot and shoe polish. Commercial costume companies began to sell outfits based on celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Mickey Mouse and Dick Tracy.

While the practice of begging for, or demanding, food on Hallows Eve was centuries old, the words “trick or treat” apparently came into use in the 1930s. The earliest known appearance of the phrase in print was in an American Home article written by Doris Hudson Moss in 1939, according to author David Skal (Death Makes a Holiday) and others. Rogers writes, “Trick-or-treating radically altered the dynamics of festive license without eliminating its masking or playful features.” The holiday became a boon for food manufacturers and retailers.

Vintage mask, from Dressed for Thrills


During the 1960s and ‘70s, Halloween became a thoroughly secular, consumer-oriented event. The booming plastics industry made it possible to cheaply sell realistic masks, noses, fangs and props. Middle-class parents bought full Halloween get-ups at mass-market stores for the family. For children, the main point of Halloween became to dress up and collect as much tasty candy as possible. There wasn’t much sense of actually dealing out nasty “tricks” to people who didn’t offer sufficient goodies, but many boys harassed friends, neighbors and random victims with armaments like eggs, toilet paper and shaving cream.


Today’s Halloween has become popular in many places around the world. In America, suburban homes have bigger and spookier lawn displays each year. Office cubicles are festooned with orange and black crepe paper and bowls of candy. Hundreds of thousands show up at work in full Halloween garb. Costume parties for adults are commonplace. “Haunted houses” are popular seasonal attractions. The merchandising for the holiday is enormous, second only to that of Christmas. Halloween is big business, generating billions of dollars in sales; Hallows Eve has been possessed by Hollywood and Walmart.
 

The Halloween of this century has pretty much lost its uncanny power, unless one is four years old and terrified of an uncle dressed as Count Dracula. There aren’t many Americans now who believe that spirits are on the loose the night of October 31. Although death is the central theme of Halloween, celebrants deal with the grim reaper only on a playful level. Yet perhaps this somehow helps children, and us, cope with the most fearful realities of life.

For adults, it may be that Halloween is evolving into a masquerade event like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in other countries. These are “inversion rituals,” in which ordinary people can break the rules, flout convention, and mock authority for a few days, until the normal social order reasserts itself. Halloween no longer retains the sense of awe and wonder associated with Hallows Eve and Samhain in the past, yet it remains an intriguing, still-evolving ritual that fuses a wealth of folk beliefs and cultural traditions.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Biofuel Could Eat Brazil's Savannas & Deforest the Amazon

These days, when you fill up your car with a gasoline-and-ethanol blend, you are probably burning ethyl alcohol made from American corn. A few years from now, your commute may be powered by ethanol from sugar cane grown in Brazil’s cerrado, a biodiversity hotspot that is the largest savanna in South America and disappearing at a faster rate than the Amazon. You may be hastening the demise of the world’s largest rain forest as well. And you won’t be alone: AOL founder Steve Case, film producer Steven Bing, supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, global financier George Soros, and other well-known investors (see below) could end up playing leading roles in Brazilian deforestation. Case and his colleagues are banking on Brazilian biofuel. They may be hoping to make a green investment that will help save the world, or they may just want to get a piece of the next gold rush. But they probably don’t understand the importance of the cerrado, or the possible environmental consequences of their actions.

Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and some biofuel boosters claim that Brazilian ethanol production will not affect the Amazon (it will, mostly indirectly). Some also say that the Amazon’s deforestation rate has slowed dramatically (true, if you’ve got a short attention span). Actually, the Amazon is still in grave danger.

 Soybean plantation, Cerrado, Brazil

Ethanol advocates in Brazil assert that millions of hectares are available for growing sugar cane outside of the Amazon rain forest in “grasslands,” “scrublands” or “degraded pasturelands,” by which they refer to land in the cerrado or in Brazil’s Southeast. The cerrado is treated as a sort of under-utilized wasteland, rather than the species-rich biome that it is. Referring to it only as “grasslands” is like using that word alone to denote the famed savanna that is East Africa’s Serengeti. The cerrado is important as more than just potential pasture or cane acreage, and it is under siege.

The Ethanol Explosion & Biofuel Boom
We are at the beginning of a biofuel boom that will reshape the world’s energy map. The U.S. and Brazil are the world’s two biggest producers of ethanol, having contributed 4.9 and 4.5 billion gallons, respectively, in 2006. Total world production was 13.5 billion gallons . A gallon of ethanol is equivalent to about two-thirds a gallon of gasoline in terms of energy content (some say 70%).
The U.S. makes its ethanol from corn, with the Bush administration providing heavy subsidies, while Brazil makes its alcohol from sugar cane. Americans currently consume more ethanol than they produce, with demand reaching 5.4 billion gallons last year; the latter was equivalent to about 3.6 billion gallons of gas, or more than 2% of annual U.S. gasoline consumption. Brazil, meanwhile, is the world’s biggest exporter of ethanol, selling about 20% of its production to the U.S., Japan and India, primarily.

Native vegetation (left) and Soybeans (right)

Making ethanol on a significant scale will use up a lot of land. President George W. Bush wants to see biofuel production of 35 billion gallons by 2017. The U.S. and other countries hope to substitute as much as 15% of domestic gasoline for ethanol over the next decade. It will take a lot of corn and cane to achieve it. America’s production of ethanol used up 13% of our corn crop in 2005, and that percentage may be at 20% now. World corn, wheat, dairy and beef prices have risen as a result.
However, cane is more viable as an ethanol crop in terms of energy inputs, and most of it will have to come from Brazil. Producing an additional 27 billion gallons there would require roughly 42 million more acres devoted to sugar cane (see figures below). Brazil’s Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes estimates there are still 150 million hectares (370 million acres) available for agriculture in Brazil. He and Lula believe there is more than enough “unused” pasture and farmland to absorb a ten-fold increase in Brazil’s ethanol production. South Africa and India are also expected to enter the biofuel business in a big way, to meet global demand.

 

Those are figures that fire the imaginations of investors, including green ones. Yet, there’s a small problem. Brazil is already the world leader in annual deforestation, even without a huge leap in biofuel production. It is a world bread basket, number one in soybean, orange juice, coffee and sugar exports, number two in beef, and high in other agricultural products. As the world’s population grows, so will Brazil’s agricultural production, resulting in more pressure on the Amazon and cerrado. A lot more deforestation is on the way, even without large-scale ethanol production.

Where Brazil Grows Its Cane
Brazil currently grows sugar cane on about 6 million hectares (15 million acres), with about half that earmarked for ethanol (an acre of cane produces about 650 gallons of ethanol ). It takes fewer fossil fuels to convert sugar cane to alcohol than it does corn, and the plant waste can be used to generate heat and electricity at the distilleries. Making ethanol from sugar cane is relatively efficient and cost-competitive, and it doesn’t require the tax credit and import tariff currently propping up U.S. ethanol producers.


Lobo Guara (Maned Wolf)

About 60% of Brazil’s sugar cane is grown in the state of São Paulo, in the Southeast. São Paulo is Brazil’s wealthiest state, its manufacturing heart and a rich agricultural area. It was once covered by the Atlantic Rain Forest, an ecosystem that centuries ago occupied at least one million square kilometers of Brazil. The “Mata Atlantica,” smaller than the Amazon but also rich in biodiversity, was located in the South and Southeast, ranged in a coastal strip along Brazil’s Northeast, and was about 93% removed during the country’s colonization (remnants of the Atlantic Rain Forest are still under threat). Cane is also grown in many other Brazilian states as well, including in the Northeast and Center-West.

So what’s the problem? And who cares about grasslands?

The Cerrado: A Biodiversity Hotspot
The cerrado is located south of the Amazon, on the central Brazilian plateau in the Center-West region of the country. The vast savanna is one of the richest biological regions in the world, in terms of bird, reptile, fish and insect species. It is home to more than 400 tree species, 10,000 plant species, and 800 bird species. Parrots, jaguars, giant anteaters, capybaras, marsupials, and many monkey species live there. It is the world’s most biologically diverse savanna, home to at least 5% of Earth’s flora.

The cerrado region covers about 23% of Brazil, some two million square kilometers, roughly the size of Western Europe. It varies in form, ranging from dense grassland with shrubs and small trees to almost closed woodlands. The cerrado is a vegetation formation of great antiquity, that may have existed in “prototypic form in the Cretaceous, before the final separation of the South American and African continents.”


While the cerrado is not as famous as the Amazon, it is in just as much ecological peril. In fact, it is disappearing at a faster rate in proportion to its size. More than 50% of its original vegetation has been destroyed due to ranching and agriculture, and half of the remaining areas have been seriously impacted. It is being deforested at a rate of about 1.5% per year. Agriculture and ranching have dramatically increased in the cerrado region over the last three decades, and Brazil’s Center-West now accounts for more than 40% of Brazil’s soybean production (Brazil is the world’s leader), 23% of its corn, and 20% of rice, coffee and beans, in addition to heavy beef and pork production.

Conservation International believes that the cerrado may disappear almost entirely by the year 2030.
Further deforestation of the cerrado will have a major impact outside its own region. The cerrado is important as a watershed area for various large rivers that run through the Amazon rain forest. Some 700,000 sq. km. of the cerrado is located within the Amazon basin (the total area that drains into the Amazon River system; not to be confused with the Amazon rain forest).

The cerrado’s fate also concerns the famed Pantanal, the world’s largest contiguous wetland, with 140,000 square kilometers in Brazilian territory. It borders the cerrado in Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul states, and has 650 species of birds, 80 species of mammals, 360 fish species and 50 reptile species. The Pantanal is under environmental threat as well.

Actinocephaplus plants, Cerrado

 Biofuel, Celebrity Investors & the Cerrado
To increase its ethanol production, Brazil is growing more sugar cane in São Paulo and Paraná states in the South. It is also ramping up production in the Center-West states of Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul and Goiás. A large part of those three states is covered by cerrado vegetation.

Celebrity investors are putting money into Center-West biofuel production. AOL founder Steve Case, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, film producer Steve Bing and former World Bank president James Wolfensohn are among the investors in Bermuda-based Brenco (Brazilian Renewable Energy Co.), which plans to produce 3.8 billion liters of ethanol in Brazil by 2015, it was announced Aug. 24. Brenco will produce its ethanol in the cerrado region, in Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul and Goiás states.

George Soros is also making ethanol in the cerrado region. Soros is the main shareholder in Adeco Agropecuaria Brasil Ltda, and is investing $900 million in three sugar and ethanol plants in Mato Grosso do Sul. They will have a joint processing capacity of 11 million tons of cane per year and produce 1 billion liters of ethanol annually.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are two other famous investors who recently visited Brazil to research possible ethanol investments.


 Other major investments are underway in the cerrado region. ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) is building a biodiesel production plant, utilizing soybeans, near Rondonópolis, Mato Grosso. It is expected to have an annual capacity of 180,000 metric tons.

Biofuel production will directly impact the cerrado as sugar cane and soybeans replace native vegetation. It will indirectly affect it as cattle ranching and soybean farming (for food) moves there, after being displaced in São Paulo by today’s highly lucrative ethanol business.

Hyacinth Macaw

The Amazon’s Deforestation Rate
The Amazon rain forest’s annual rate of deforestation showed a decline the last two years as compared to 2005, but that’s not saying much. Since 1988, the rate has fluctuated between a low of 11,030 square kilometers (1991) and a high of 29,059 sq. km. (1995) lost per year. The year 2004 saw 27,379 sq. km. destroyed, while 2006 was down to 14,039 sq. km., according to data from Brazil’s INPE (National Institute of Space). No one should get too excited: the rate also dropped to 13,227 sq. km. in 1997 and then climbed up to the ‘04 level. One year does not make a trend, and the rate needs to keep dropping for many burning seasons to come.

The Amazon has lost 17-20% of its forest . Scientists are worried that another twenty percent will disappear during the next three decades, which will seriously impact the region’s ecology and rainfall patterns (the Amazon produces half its own rainfall through moisture its plants release into the atmosphere). A tipping point may be reached where remaining trees will dry out; some scientists fear the Amazon rain forest will largely disappear by the end of this century. Global warming could exacerbate the problem, and Amazonian deforestation will worsen global warming.

Biofuel’s Threat To The Amazon
The Amazon will be affected by the biofuel boom both directly and indirectly. Biofuel crops such as soybeans and palm oil (both used to make biodiesel) are grown on a large scale there. And, contrary to what President Lula and some others have claimed, cane is indeed cultivated there. In July, Brazilian authorities raided an Amazon sugar cane plantation, in which 1,000 laborers were found working in horrendous debt-slavery conditions. The company, Para Pastoril e Agricola SA, grows cane for ethanol on a 10,000-hectare (24,700 acre) plantation in Pará state, in the Amazon. Global bank HSBC Holdings PLC got unwelcome publicity for loans it had made to the firm, as did Lula - who had been calling ethanol producers “national heroes.” Many sugar-cane cutters in Brazil work in miserable conditions.

Brazil’s Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes has announced that Brazil will restrict the planting of sugar cane in the Amazon and Pantanal in the next few years. Yet he also has been quoted that “Cane does not exist in Amazonia.” Stephanes should perhaps visit the Para Pastoril e Agricola plantation. It would be a miracle if Stephanes actually restricts anything at all. The Lula administration does not have a noteworthy environmental record.

Meanwhile, Lula suspects that European competitors are trying to undermine Brazil’s biofuel production by raising environmental concerns. “We have adversaries that will make up any kind of slander against the quality of ethanol and biodiesel.”


So, sugar cane is grown on a small scale in the Amazon, and more of it will be planted there in the near future, even if the bulk of production occurs in the Southeast and Center-West. In addition, climactic alterations wrought by deforestation could change the Amazon’s climate, making it more suitable for large-scale sugar-cane production.

Biofuel will affect the Amazon rain forest in four ways. First, there will be increased biofuel production in some form. Secondly, since 700 sq. km. of the cerrado lie in the Amazon river basin, deforestation and irrigation in the cerrado will affect the rain-forest areas to the North. Thirdly, much soybean production and ranching will move into the Amazon as farmers in Brazil’s South and Center-West invest further in sugarcane. And, fourthly, the massive allocation of corn in the U.S. for ethanol production, and its effect on the planting of soy and other U.S. food crops, will create a greater global demand for Brazilian soy and corn, which in turn will cause more agricultural expansion into the Amazon.

A Brazilian Forestry code limits the deforestation allowable on Amazon rain forest or cerrado land, and require large “legal reserves” of protected natural vegetation. However, Brazil is a country with an ineffective judicial system, and little enforcement. The law won’t make much difference, not in the near future.

In terms of biodiversity, the outlook isn’t pretty. Brazil will lose out because of species loss, should the cerrado be further devastated. The cerrado, like the Amazon, can be a source of important new medicines and chemicals derived from the vast variety of plant and insect species there, many not yet discovered. In addition, further deforestation will cause soil erosion, damage watershed, and cause climactic change in Brazil. It would make sense if soy and cane growers developed biofuel only on already degraded land in the cerrado, or in São Paulo state, as promised in speeches by politicians, but it’s unlikely to happen.


Conservation, Alternative Energy & Cellulosic Ethanol
So, where your ethanol comes from is important. Making ethanol from food crops is not a wise strategy for various reasons (see my blog Gas, Grass or Corn...Nobody Rides for Free).
Neither is producing it from crops grown in biodiversity hotspots, nor creating biofuel through agriculture that shifts other crops into environmentally threatened zones.

The best approach is investing in cellulosic ethanol production, which will make ethyl alcohol from the cellulose in trees and grasses (including the “switchgrass” often referred to by President Bush). Cellulosic ethanol has a high net energy balance, and can be grown on degraded land or areas that are less important in terms of biodiversity. It is a few years away from being viable.

What make the most sense of all is energy conservation and alternative energy (as in wind and solar power). Shouldn’t we be investing in these instead of giving pork-barrel subsidies to American farmers to make ethanol out of corn, which can’t even compete with Brazil’s ethanol? Why can’t we spend billions on a “Manhattan Project” for conservation and efficiency, and have it run by an energy genius like the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins?

And wouldn’t it be great if Steve Case, Vinod Khosla, Ron Burkle, Steve Bing, James Wolfensohn, George Soros, Larry Page and Sergey Brin invested in environmentally enlightened energy companies that dealt with solar power, wind power, cellulosic ethanol, or energy management and conservation?

In conclusion, Brazil is already on a perilous path of deforestation. A dramatic increase in its biofuel production is not the best answer to global energy woes, nor the best strategy for the country’s future, in terms of the environment. Foreign investment in ethanol and biodiesel will help accelerate the disappearance of the cerrado and the Amazon. Both could be gone in a few decades.
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The Importance of Being Cerrado: Brazil's Other Huge, Endangered Ecosystem

 
by Chris McGowan
(March 18, 2010, The Huffington Post)

Everyone knows the vital importance of the Amazon rain forest for our planet, but few are aware that right next door is another endangered ecosystem of great size and considerable significance. The Cerrado is a vast savanna that stretches across two million square kilometers in central Brazil, covering an area larger than Alaska. The Cerrado deserves our attention: it is one of the oldest and most diverse tropical ecosystems and is under grave threat because of the country’s agricultural boom. The Cerrado has lost 48% of its original vegetation and is disappearing faster than the Amazon rain forest; it may be gone before we realize what we’ve lost. And its health affects its neighboring biome’s health; many large tributaries of the Amazon River originate in the Cerrado.

 Tamandua (Anteaster)

The Cerrado consists of open grasslands, grasslands mixed with shrubs and small trees, and dry-forest woodlands. The region is much drier than the Amazon, which it borders along the latter’s southeastern edge; the Cerrado has a long annual dry season and its plants are drought-tolerant and often fire-adapted. Jaguars, giant anteaters, maned wolves, foxes, pampas deer, tapirs, capybaras, and monkeys live in the Cerrado, as do nearly 200 other mammals, 600 bird species, 220 reptiles, and more than 10,000 plant species (44% endemic, according to Conservation International). The Cerrado is the most biologically diverse savanna on Earth. It is the home of many of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, who have been adversely affected by the deforestation, and the location of major cities like Brasília, the country’s capital.

 Ipe Amarelo (Handroanthus chrysotrichus)

The acidic red soils of the Cerrado were considered infertile until the late 20th century. Then, thanks to research by Embrapa, a Brazilian government agency, a suitable mixture of phosphorus and lime was applied to Cerrado soils, turning them into prime farmland. The agricultural boom that resulted is startling: the region now contributes the majority of Brazil’s enormous soybean output, and a substantial part of its corn, rice, and cotton production. It is also leads the country in cattle ranching. Farmers are stripping the Cerrado of its native vegetation to plant crops, create pasture for livestock, and to make charcoal for the steel industry. According to a Sept. 6th, 2009 article in the newspaper O Globo, 48.5% of the Cerrado region had lost its natural vegetation as of 2008, a big jump from the 38.9% figure for 2002. The figures come from a study by Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment (MMA); some scientists cite higher numbers.

These figures are even scarier when one considers that only 10.6% of the Cerrado had been cleared as of 1970, according to scientists Carlos A. Klink and Adriana G. Moreira, in an article in the book The Cerrados of Brazil: Ecology and Natural History of a Neotropical Savanna. This rapid conversion of the Cerrado has helped to power the Brazilian economy in recent years, and there is big money at stake. It is not surprising then that those who promote agriculture in the Cerrado tend to describe its natural vegetation as “scrub” and “wasteland.” They also take pains to misleadingly argue that biofuel will have no effect on the Cerrado, when indirectly it could have a devastating effect by shifting even more soy farming and cattle ranching to the region (see my blog Biofuel Could Eat Brazil’s Savannas & Deforest the Amazon).

There are arguments that abandoned pastureland in the Cerrado can provide plenty of space for more agriculture and that the region can easily become the breadbasket of the world. Embrapa maintains that “production in the Cerrado can increase on existing lands with greater efficiency, not needing expansion. Grain production in the Cerrado, for example, increased 129.7 percent from 1991 to 2007, but the area harvested increased by only 25.9 percent,” wrote Sara Llana in the Nov. 12, 2008 Christian Science Monitor. Nevertheless, the pace of Cerrado destruction continues unabated, with 194,000 square kilometers of deforestation from 2002 to 2008, according to the MMA study quoted by O Globo.


If we lose the Cerrado, we lose the possible medical and other uses that may one day come from the known and unknown species of the biome. In addition, the Cerrado is a large part of the watershed for the mighty San Francisco and Paraguay River systems, and contains 700,000 square kilometers of land located within the Amazon Basin (the total area that drains into the Amazon River system; not to be confused with the Amazon rain forest). If farmers remove the native Cerrado vegetation, ruin its ecosystems, and pour fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides onto hundreds of thousands of square kilometers there, the Amazon rain forest downstream will suffer from pollution and a possible loss of rainfall. Brazil will be despoiling some of its most important water resources. In addition, Cerrado deforestation is a major part of Brazil’s carbon emissions every year, a problem that must be addressed.

The loss of Cerrado vegetation is also a blow to the culinary world. The region has native fruits like araticum, buriti, cagaita, ingá, jatobá, magaba, pitaya, pitomba and pequi that are eaten regionally but are often little known in the rest of Brazil. One of my favorite Cerrado foods is the delicious baru nut, which comes from the baruzeiro tree (dipteryx alata). The brown nut has a rich taste and high mineral and protein content; it is every bit as appealing as popular nuts like almonds, peanuts and cashews and would sell well on the international market. Unfortunately, the tree is considered “vulnerable” by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), which has written, “the species has suffered from habitat conversion to agriculture. In addition, exploitation of its excellent timber and medicinal seeds has led to massive declines in population numbers.”

At the present rate of destruction, the Cerrado ecosystem could disappear almost entirely within a few decades. Less than two percent of the Cerrado is located within national parks or conservation areas, according to the Nature Conservancy (in addition, a percentage of native habitat is supposed to be protected on all private land, by law).

 A mother Ema and her offspring

Fortunately, Brazil’s environmental minister Carlos Minc is one individual who is conscious of the Cerrado’s plight. Speaking of the deforestation of the Amazon and the Cerrado on Sept. 10, he commented, “Happily, with government programs we managed to reduce the deforestion of the Amazon biome by half. The bad news is we couldn’t do the same for the Cerrado.” That day, Minc announced a plan to prevent deforestation and wildfires in the Cerrado biomes, along the lines of similar plans currently in action in the Amazon.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first environmental minister, Marina Silva, resigned in May of 2008, frustrated by interference by agricultural interests (and her boss), especially in terms of her attempts to protect the Amazon. She is now running for president herself next year, against Lula’s hand-picked candidate, Dilma Rousseff. Carlos Minc took over Silva’s job and has also clashed with the agricultural lobby, yet seems to be making progress. He says that Brazil will increase the amount of Cerrado land under protection. Let’s hope Minc keeps working hard to save the Amazon and the Cerrado both, and that he isn’t fired by Lula, who usually puts development first.


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Monday, May 15, 2017

An Appreciation of the Criterion Collection



 In 1994, I wrote an essay titled "An Appreciation of the Criterion Collection" for the company's tenth-anniversary catalog. A small company in Santa Monica, Criterion singlehandedly created a market in the 1980s for the nascent laserdisc format with its painstaking releases of classic American and international films with their aspect ratios intact and a wealth of interactive supplementary material. Criterion was a pioneer in interactive media and popularized letterboxed releases, which arguably led to an acceptance of widescreen TVs by early adopters.




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Monday, August 15, 2016

The Deodar Tree: Sacred Conifer from the Himalayas


The deodar is a sacred tree in the northwestern Himalayas that has been planted extensively as an ornamental in Europe and North America. It is a towering, stately conifer with a striking appearance; its expressively pointed and drooping branches make it look like a sentient tree from an enchanted forest. One could imagine a deodar picking up its immense roots and striding forth, like an Ent from The Lord of the Rings. A dense forest of them in Kashmir must seem haunted indeed in the summer moonlight.

I grew up with deodars, as my grandparents’ house in Southern California had two enormous ones in the backyard, the silver-green tops of which were visible blocks away. I spent many an hour climbing up the thick branches, which were wide-spaced and easy to negotiate, and sitting with my back to the rough grey-brown bark. The sap was fragrant and hard to wash off my hands. I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed spending time aloft in those trees. Squirrels raced in spirals up and down the big trunks and chattered from the heights. And great horned owls perched in the branches at night, hooting in the wee hours.


We lived only a few miles away from Altadena, a neighborhood squeezed between Pasadena and the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Deodars shade many lawns there, and provide a place-name: Deodara Drive. Two hundred of the conifers line Santa Rosa Avenue, and residents string them with lights every December, creating Altadena’s “Christmas Tree Lane,” a popular yuletide destination. Glowing lights also adorn tall deodars during the holidays in nearby San Marino on St. Albans Avenue. A few blocks away, the Huntington Library and Gardens is home to some impressive deodars planted in 1912, according to botanist Jim Bauml.

Growing up in the area, I was always curious about deodars, even more so when I discovered their origin. The word deodar comes from devadaru, a Sanskrit word that translates to “divine wood” or “timber of God.” The deodar is revered in the Himalayas and frequently mentioned in Hindu stories. Kashmiri and Punjabi villagers worshipped the “devadara” tree god.


Deodars range across the Hindu Kush and Himalayas, at elevations from about 3,500 to 12,000 feet. They are native to northeastern Afghanistan, Pakistan (where it is the national tree), India and western Nepal. Deodars are common in the regions of Punjab, Kashmir and the Himachal Pradesh. Extensive forests still exist in the basin of the main tributaries of the Indus River. They can live to be a thousand years old and grow as tall as 250 feet, which was first established by British botanist Dr. J. Lindsay Stewart, Conservator of Forests in the Punjab region in colonial India in the mid-19th century.

Cedrus Deodara is a member of an Old World genus of “true cedars,” that also includes the Biblically famous Cedrus Libani, or cedar of Lebanon. It is also related to the Atlas Cedar of the mountains of Northern Africa. The wood has a fine close grain capable of receiving a high polish, and it is in high demand as a building material. Deodar wood is often used both to construct religious temples and to landscape the grounds around them. “As Himalaya is considered to be the home of gods, it is believed that the forests are the part of their house. The landscape around temple is considered sacred and is preserved as temple grove. The tree of Cedrus deodara is believed to be the tree of God and is planted around temples,” wrote the authors of a 2006 article in The Journal of American Science.

Deodar wood is extremely durable and rot-resistant. Deodar pillars of the great Shah Hamaden Mosque in Kashmir are over four centuries old. Hindu temples have been reputedly been built with deodar wood that has lasted 600 to 800 years. A 1926 Scientific American article described a bridge in Kashmir with deodar timber that was little decayed after four centuries of exposure to river water.

When the British colonized India, deodar wood became the most sought after timber in the country and was used extensively for the construction of barracks, public buildings, bridges, canals and railway cars. The demand became so great that numerous deodar forests were harvested beyond the point of recovery and conservationist action was initiated in 1864 by the aforementioned Dr. Stewart. Unfortunately, deodar deforestation has picked up in recent decades, across the Hindu Kush and Himalayas.

Deodar wood is also prized for its curative properties. According to Indian Ayurvedic medicine, deodar bark, oil and wood powder possess anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-cancer properties; and are used against fever, diarrhea and dysentery, for skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis, and to aid digestion. Insects avoid the wood, and an oil distilled from the deodar has been used as an application to the feet of horses, cattle and camels as a preventive against the bites of the troublesome Himalayan “potu” fly. The aromatic wood is used as incense. And, as if all that weren’t enough, Hindu Kush sibyls (female oracles) have used the smoke of burning deodar wood for divine inspiration. Clearly, the deodar is a most useful tree.

Deodar seeds made their way to Great Britain in 1831, and ten years later to Ireland and Scotland. In 1885, an Altadena resident named John Woodbury planted two hundred deodar saplings in parallel rows on his family’s rancho, down what is now Santa Rosa Avenue. They have been festooned with Christmas lights every year since 1920.

The next time you see one of these beautiful, striking trees in Pasadena or Palo Alto, San Francisco or Seattle, remember that it’s not a pine tree. Rather, you are gazing upon devadaru, the “tree of God.”

To help preserve remaining stands of deodars in their native habitats, these organizations are both involved with conservation and reforestation efforts in the Himalayas:

Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation

World Wildlife Fund