It’s Penguin Awareness Day!

Today is one of the most important days of the year. And, no, I’m not referring to politics. January 20 in Penguin Awareness Day, when we acknowledge and pay tribute to those noble, fascinating, vaguely comical flightless birds that we love so much. Below is a handy chart that will help you to Know Your Penguins. And do say “Thank You” to any penguins you happen to meet today.


Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Inside a mountain on an island halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole resides the largest collection and reflection of crop diversity in the world.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores seed samples of the world’s crops, duplicates of the samples stored in the world’s other seed banks. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million samples. Since each sample contains an average of 500 seeds, the total capacity is something like 2.25 billion seeds. Right now, around 860,000 seed samples are stored there, or between one-third and one-half of the seed diversity stored around the world. More than 150,000 distinct varieties of both rice and wheat, as well as hundreds of much less common plants, are represented. Priority is given, not surprisingly, to crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture. Almost every country in the world has deposited seeds there, although China and Japan haven’t yet joined in.

svalbard-1The Seed Vault is housed over 400 feet inside a mountain – “Platåberget,” or “plateau mountain” – on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, just over 800 miles from the North Pole. Cary Fowler, a conservationist who helped start the Vault, has said, “If you look at it, it’s a pretty simple facility. It’s a big tunnel.” It’s so cold at Svalbard that the seeds would be safe even if the refrigeration failed. There is also considerable permafrost, and little tectonic activity there. It’s at a high altitude, so flooding isn’t an issue, and the humidity is very low. The seeds are stored at just below zero Fahrenheit in foil packages, and should be viable for many centuries.

There are around 1,700 gene banks around the world that safeguard food crops. But not all of them are in the best of shape. The seeds are aging, and the technology they use is behind the times. Many of them are vulnerable to natural disasters, accidents, or even the disappearance of governmental funding. War can be an issue, too – the seed banks of both Afghanistan and Iraq have been lost that way, and those of the Philippines and Egypt have been damaged by fire and looters. In fact, due to the civil war in Syria, in 2015 the Svalbard Global Seed Vault authorized the first withdrawal of seeds in its history, to replace some lost at Aleppo’s seed bank (luckily, Aleppo had stored duplicates of some 80% of its holdings at Svalbard).

svalbard-2Conservationist Cary Fowler, with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), started the Seed Vault. When governments started thinking about the potential danger to crops, Norway was one of the few places still trusted by most nations. It was also willing to put up all of the $9 million needed to start the project. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault officially opened on February 26, 2008 with its first deposit, of rice seeds, delivered by Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Norway even provided for some art for the facility, in the form of the illuminated Perpetual Repercussion by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, which runs the length of the facility’s roof and down to the entryway, marking the location of the vault from a distance.

The Seed Vault is owned and administered by Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The Global Crop Diversity Trust provides financial support for the operation of the Seed Vault and, until recently, the transportation of seeds to the facility. NordGen, the Nordic Gene Bank, operate the facility and maintains a public database of the samples stored there. The seed vault functions like a safe deposit box, with the Vault owning the building but the depositor owning the seeds.

Food security is a challenge in developing countries. Crop diversity is key in developing plants that can withstand disease, pests, and changing climates. However, there has been some dispute about whether preserving crop diversity is best done by institutions like the Seed Vault or by working in the field with individual communities. Research, for instance, suggests that as much as 75% of global crop diversity is actually held by farmers around the world, most of them women.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is, in a sense, the world’s backup plan – or, to use more dramatic language, a “doomsday vault” – insurance against both catastrophic and incremental loss of the world’s crop diversity.

The Dull Men’s Club

Finally, a social group of which I can be a part – the Dull Men’s Club!

Dedicated to pursuits like studying and photographing mailboxes, riding escalators, and collecting items like toothpicks and milk bottles, the Dull Men’s Club – “dull, but not boring,” as one of its members says – is an online community that brings together “dull men, and women who appreciate dull men.”

I can’t help but refer you to the John Cage quote that has appeared on this blog from the beginning, and even provided its name: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Enjoy this short documentary on the Dull Men’s Club, Born To Be Mild.

Celebration, Not Criticism

Negative or positiveI wanted to call attention to this column by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings on the topic of criticism.

One of the many noteworthy things about Brain Pickings is that Ms. Popova only writes about the things, the very diverse books and art and concepts, that interest her. Her goal, as she writes here, isn’t that of a critic, a cultural or philosophical arbiter, judging what is worthy of one’s attention and what is not. She interprets what she encounters, certainly, and draws connections between disparate writers and ideas. But seldom, or never, does she say “this is wrong” or “this is bad.”

Or rather she does, but only indirectly, in what she chooses not to discuss. She points out that criticism can take another form: “a celebration of the good by systematic omission of the bad.” She elaborates:

“To put in front of the reader only works that are worthy, and to celebrate those with a consistent editorial standard, is to create a framework for what ‘good’ means, and thus to implicitly outline the ‘bad,’ the unworthy, by way of negative space around the good. The celebrator then becomes a critic without being critical – at least not with the abrasive connotations the term has come to bear – yet upholds the standards of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ work with just as much rigor.”

Steve Goodier uses the language of self-help when he says, “Who do you spend time with? Criticizers or encouragers? Surround yourself with those who believe in you. Your life is too important for anything less.” Life is indeed much too short to be spent wallowing in the negative, spending our valuable, all-too-brief time on this planet with things (and people) that don’t do us good.

This is a philosophy I have tried to embrace with my own blog, different though it may be from Popova’s Brain Pickings. The last role I want to take on for myself is that of critic, taking some item of cultural or artistic interest and judging it “good” or “bad” or “mediocre.” I want to spend my time writing about things that interest me, excite me, inspire me, motivate me, give me a sense of joy or wonder. Many, I’d like to think, have a desire to read the same sorts of things. With the negativity that is so ubiquitous online, it’s nice to be able to put that aside occasionally. I certainly don’t want to contribute to the negativity, at my blog or elsewhere.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain, and most fools do.” Popova approaches the issue from the other direction by quoting E. B. White: “a writer has the duty … to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

SE Asia Journal: Day 12

Thursday, February 20, 5:25 p.m., Phnom Penh

It was a bright and early 5:30 a.m. rising today. Shortly after 7:00 we boarded a boat to take us on a short trip along the Mekong River to a floating fish farm, where the splashing of the catfish and tilapia took everyone by surprise with its vigor. At that point we said so long to D, our fine Vietnamese guide, and boarded a motor boat for a five-hour ride further up the Mekong to Phnom Penh, with brief stops for both Vietnamese and Cambodian immigration. For the duration of the trip I was content to sit below, take the occasional photo of fishermen or homes or temples, enjoying the fact that I was once again on the fabled Mekong!

Day 12 Ships on Mekong

Day 12 Mekong buildings 2

It wasn’t an eventful ride, but definitely a meaningful one. Sadly, because of sitting on the left side of the boat, I got half a sunburn on my left side. But it’s not painful and I’m not stressed.

Day 12 Mekong temple

From the entry at the pier, Phnom Penh certainly looked like a busy modern city, on a much larger scale than Chau Doc. Our new Cambodian guide, T, says that the population of this capital city is about two million, versus the nine million of the entire country.

Lunch was at a local restaurant, proudly announcing on a sign at the front the presence of “Mr. Toilet Public,” sponsored by the World Toilet Association (glad to know there is such a thing!)

Day 12 Mr. Toilet Public

After that we went to the Royal Palace, the home of Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni. The King was on a trip to China to seek medical care for his ailing mother, so the Cambodian flag was not flying. We got splendid views of the Royal Residence, the Throne Hall, the Moonlight Pavilion, and some smaller palaces. Mostly built in the 1860s and early 1870s, the buildings are elaborate and magnificent.

Day 12 Royal Palace 2

Day 12 Temple gable

Day 12 Royal Palace 3

We couldn’t enter the Throne Hall, but got a glimpse from the outside of the throne itself and the huge paintings within.

Adjacent to the Royal Palace is the Silver Pagoda – Wat Preah Keo Morokat, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Day 12 Royal Palace

Its name comes from the 5,329 individually crafted silver tiles that cover the entire floor. The Emerald Buddha itself may or may not be made of actual emerald; it may be some kind of crystal, but of course that isn’t the point. In front of it is the great solid gold sculpture of the Buddha of the Future Maitreya, adorned by 2,000-plus diamonds, the largest of which, in the front of its crown, is 25 carats. Hundreds of other Buddha figures large and small are on display, a few accessible – and touched gently by people for good health and long life – but most in glass cabinets. It wasn’t appropriate to take photographs within the temple. Back outside, we also got to see the beautiful but, sadly, heavily damaged fresco paintings of scenes from the Ramayana, which are only about 110 years old but are still in very poor shape.

Day 12 Damaged frescos

On our exit from the Royal Palace complex, a small Cambodian band was playing, on traditional instruments, what sounded like a Cambodian variation on “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Day 12 Cambodian band

Back to the hotel for a laundry drop off and these notes, before a remok (Cambodian tuk-tuk) ride and dinner. Yes, I’m in Cambodia!

Day 12 Phnom Penh in window