Archive for January, 2015

Framing ties with Russia in a ‘post’ post-Cold War era

January 31st, 2015 Comments off

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on January 15, 2015Whatever happened to that reset button Hillary Clinton gave her Russian counterpart in 2009 as a sign of renewed ties? No doubt gathering dust, while the West figures out how to handle Moscow now. As the war in Ukraine goes from bad to worse, with more than 5,100 dead in nine months, the United States and its EU partners are pondering what to do about Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, who doesn't seem ready to blink yet in an escalating game of chicken. "We face a dual challenge to overcome the immediate threat… along the borders, especially of Ukraine," veteran US diplomat Henry Kissinger, who steered the opening up of China, told lawmakers this week.

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There is "retaliation" and there is "sharp retaliation" which is a term coined by New York Times to refer to retaliation against Israel only

January 31st, 2015 Comments off
“Hezbollah antitank missiles killed two Israeli soldiers as they drove in a disputed area along the Lebanese border on Wednesday, a sharp retaliation for Israel’s deadly drone strike last week“.

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New York Times is lying here

January 31st, 2015 Comments off
“a strip claimed by Israel, Lebanon and sometimes Syria“.  The previous text said “and Syria” but they sneakily added “Sometimes” later. In fact, Syrian officials more than once said that they consider the farms Lebanese.  As if the lands are Syrians, the Israeli terrorist state has the right to occupy it.

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US State Department spokesperson on Israel’s right to launch wars at will

January 31st, 2015 Comments off
“MS. PSAKI: Well, we will have a statement on this that may be going out during the briefing, in my name. So if it does, I’m happy to reiterate that, but you should have that in your inboxes soon. We support Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense and continue to urge all parties to respect the blue line between Israel and Lebanon, as prescribed by UNSCR 1701. We also, of course, condemn the act of violence and will be watching the situation closely.

QUESTION: You condemn the act of violence – you’re referring to?

MS. PSAKI: The attacks.

QUESTION: The Hezbollah attacks?


QUESTION: Okay. Just on a technical question: There are some who have made the argument that this area, Shebaa Farms, is Israeli-occupied Lebanon. What’s the U.S. position on the status of this area?

MS. PSAKI: I’d have to check with our legal team on the specific status, Matt. I’m happy to do that.

QUESTION: Do you know if anyone – the Secretary or anyone else – has been in touch with either the Israelis or the Lebanese about this issue?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any calls to read out from the Secretary this morning. As you know, he flew back and arrived early this morning. I can certainly check on contacts with our teams on the ground. I would certainly suspect that our teams in Lebanon and Israel have been in touch with relevant authorities.

QUESTION: Jen, do you think that the Lebanese army or the Lebanese Government bear any responsibility in this attack?

MS. PSAKI: I think this is an attack that obviously just happened. We certainly encourage all parties to respect the blue line between Israel and Lebanon. We urge all parties to refrain from any action that could escalate the situation. You’re familiar with our views on Hezbollah. As I mentioned, we strongly condemn Hezbollah’s attack today near the border, but beyond that I’m not going to speculate further.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: You began your comments on this by reaffirming your belief that Israel has the right to self-defense, and then – which might be taken as that they have a right to defend against attacks like the one that killed the two soldiers, and now you say, however, that you encourage all sides to refrain from any actions that could escalate the situation. Which is it? I mean, do you feel that the Israelis should not take any actions that would escalate the situation, or do you feel that they have every right to attack in self-defense against such things?

MS. PSAKI: Well, they have the right to, Arshad, but certainly our preference is to reduce the tensions and the violence and the back and forth from here.”

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Egypt leader warns of ‘long battle’

January 31st, 2015 Comments off

Egypt faces a long and difficult battle with militants, the country’s president says, in his first remarks since a deadly attack in the Sinai region.
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Bahrain strips 72 of citizenship

January 31st, 2015 Comments off

The government of Bahrain revokes the nationalities of 72 citizens for damaging national security, the state BNA news agency has reported.
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Inside the green schools revolution

January 31st, 2015 Comments off

By Bryn Nelson | (Mosaic: The Science of Life) –

How can we design better, ‘living’ classrooms, places that will not only improve the lives of teachers and students, but also have less of an impact on the environment? Bryn Nelson goes back to school to find out.

1.HERO_SEED_141018_LivingClassrooms©AliceTye © Alice Tye

It begins with a girl from Oregon. She is eight years old, and crying.

At the edge of suburbia, her grandfather’s woods with her favourite climbing trees and ‘green sky’ trees for reading are being clear-cut for a new housing development where she and her mother will be forced to live.

She will be an architect, she tells her mother through her tears. One who can build homes without killing the trees.

Twenty years later, two girls and a boy are pointing out a dry streambed and a towering bank of plants bathed in daylight. They are 10 or 11 years old, and talking excitedly, all at once, about the things they love the most. The plants climbing an 18-foot wall are purifying the air and treating used water, while the pebbled streambed carries new rainwater to a cistern beneath a ‘living building’: an airy classroom designed to function as efficiently as a flower.

Stacy Smedley, the girl from Oregon, became an architect after all, and helped to build this science wing for the private Bertschi School in Seattle. The classroom has the lifespan of a tree, is mainly lit by the sun, collects its own water, and excludes a long ‘red list’ of potentially harmful materials such as mercury, formaldehyde and polyvinyl chloride. Best of all, Smedley says, the kids helped design it themselves.

They’re among the lucky ones. Teachers, parents, politicians and researchers routinely cite a long list of factors that can interfere with a quality education. The dangers of asbestos and lead in older school buildings have been documented for years. Among the external threats, pesticides can stray from adjacent fields, while pollutants drift from nearby roads. Until recently, however, relatively few observers focused on the overall environmental quality of the interior spaces where, apart from their own homes, children spend most of their time.

As evidence mounts that factors such as poor ventilation, inadequate daylight, and exposure to chemicals and microbes can harm both learning and health, a movement linking well-designed classrooms to the wellbeing of students is gaining momentum. But by adopting short-term solutions to overcrowding and underfunding – such as cheaply constructed and poorly maintained portable classrooms – many schools are only making the problem worse.


It’s not a new idea, but still a radical notion to many: What if classrooms and other public buildings designed to minimise their environmental impact also maximised the health of their occupants, whether students or workers?

‘Living building’ classrooms are meant to do both. They must have operable windows that provide ready access to air and light. And, in response to concerns that some rating systems have done little to verify that ‘green’ buildings work as intended, certification comes only if they demonstrate their mettle after a full year.

Drawing upon these spaces as inspiration, Smedley and two collaborators are designing living portable classrooms, called SEEDs. With the enthusiastic assistance of school kids from Jasper, Alberta, who wanted a living classroom of their own, the team designed a prototype in 2013. It features a faux tree for hanging artwork, a swing for swinging and a living wall for growing herbs and tomatoes.

A year later the nonprofit SEED (Sustainable Education Every Day) Collaborative sold its prototype to the private Perkins School in Seattle – the first of what Smedley and her colleagues hope will be “hundreds of little green sprouts” around the world.

You don’t have to go far, though, to see what she might call a “bad seed”.

In a 2013 report card on US infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers nearly failed the nation’s public school buildings for their overall condition. For the 2012/13 school year, the US Department of Education asked public schools to rate how 17 building components were faring. The worst categories, rated as only fair or poor by roughly one-third of all respondents, included windows, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Strikingly, the 31 per cent of schools that reported using portable classrooms gave lower ratings to every one of the components in those buildings. The very worst? Windows, doors and exterior lighting.

Depending on the country, these structures may be known as portables or transportables, demountables or relocatables, huts, mobiles or terrapins. Unhealthy and unsafe conditions can plague classrooms of all kinds, of course, but a growing number of architects and advocates have zeroed in on these buildings as prime examples of the troubling conditions found in some schools. The challenge, for them, is to transform one of the worst kinds of spaces into one of the best.

Most of these “vinyl-wrapped boxes” filled with kids, Smedley says, offer little natural light and are among the worst offenders for poor indoor air quality. The 2004 California Portable Classrooms Study, one of the few studies to focus on environmental health in such spaces, affirmed that they are plagued with more heating, ventilation and air conditioning problems than their traditional counterparts, including excessive noise and uncomfortable temperatures.

The researchers found worrisome flaws in both kinds of classrooms, such as serious deficiencies in the outdoor air exchange, and attributed some of the faults to improper operation and maintenance of ventilation systems. Portables, however, lagged behind in multiple other measures as well, including having lower levels of light and higher levels of formaldehyde, airborne particles, visible ceiling mould, and water stains on the floor.

Tom Hardiman, Executive Director of the Modular Building Institute (MBI), maintains that many of these failings could be remedied through proper use, maintenance or location of portable classrooms. He points with pride to newly designed and more efficient classrooms being built by a range of manufacturers.

Better designs, of course, often come with a higher price tag. In an industry fact sheet, the MBI notes that schools often acquire “the minimally acceptable code compliant classroom due to cost constraints”.

Tight budgets and expanding enrolments may in fact be fuelling the recent surge in portable classroom sales. Rough estimates suggest that schools are now using at least 300,000 portable classrooms in the USA alone, with thousands more on order. In overcrowded districts in Florida, California and elsewhere, some schools consist entirely of these built-to-order units. In the UK, portable classroom manufacturer Portakabin reported record sales in 2013, fuelled by a demographic boom that has hit London the hardest.

Because they are less expensive to build and install than permanent structures, portable classrooms give cash-strapped communities a more affordable option for alleviating overcrowding.

Compared to permanent structures, however, most existing portable models cost more to secure, heat, cool, light, clean and maintain. And while they’re portable in theory, classrooms are rarely moved because of the serious structural problems that can arise, and the added expense of building new ramps and foundations and hooking up utilities upon reassembly.

Long after they’ve lived out their useful lives, some portables are sold on eBay. Others end up as repurposed affordable homes, while rumours swirl of portable classroom ‘graveyards’ for those that simply can’t be revived.

But many stand their ground, hunkering by parking lots or fields long after their recommended expiry date of 10 to 20 years. The public is under the “strange illusion” that portable classrooms are temporary structures, says Margarette Leite, an architect based in Portland, Oregon. In practice, they aren’t. “Nobody wants portable classrooms to be the answer, but they are,” she says. “And they’re not going away.”


There’s that nagging voice that tells you we’ve been here before.

In 1901 New York’s Tenement House Act required all bedrooms in newly constructed tenement buildings to have direct access to fresh air and light. The law took its cue in part from the sanatoriums sprouting throughout the countryside of North America and Europe – many emphasising the importance of rest, sunshine, healthy food and clean air for treating tuberculosis and other lung ailments.

Lindsay Baker, a graduate student in the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, has documented the concern of early educational reformers over the dark and dank ‘factory-like’ classrooms that sprang up after the Industrial Revolution.

By the turn of the century, schoolroom designers were crafting increasingly detailed plans that emphasised natural light and ventilation. Given the relative dearth of electric lighting, the first was a necessity, while it was initially hoped that the latter would dilute body odour amid the swelling ranks of students.

As classroom designs increased in sophistication, Baker notes, a writer in 1910 cautioned his colleagues to remember “that no artificial heating and ventilation can ever take the place of fresh outdoor air and sunshine”.

Several decades later, his words would fall on deaf ears.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Baker writes, leading architects actually expanded the emphasis on air, light and outdoor learning, as part of what would become known as the ‘open air school’ movement. After World War II, as student populations began to skyrocket, more modern and affordable buildings – albeit ones with shorter life expectancies – started taking hold. Even then, designs such as California’s famous ‘finger-plan’ schools, with individual corridors that splayed out from a central hub, maximised each classroom’s access to light, air and the outdoors.

Amid the rise of technology, though, builders began to assert that they could seal schools and control their indoor environments more precisely using air conditioners. Some architects and researchers in the 1960s even argued that windowless schools had no negative impacts on pupils and were actually beneficial because they reduced heating, cooling and maintenance costs.

Researchers documented widespread dissatisfaction among teachers and students in these windowless, bunker-like spaces, but didn’t consider it important because there was no apparent effect on test scores.

Many design principles dating back to the turn of the century were, in fact, largely abandoned. Windows and skylights, once essential, became maintenance and security risks, while architects argued that more constant fluorescent light would prevent eyestrain. High ceilings and expansive windows clashed with air conditioners, and economists argued that it was cheaper to build classrooms back to back.

A misguided response to the oil embargo of the early 1970s only compounded the problem. Building designers reasoned that they could improve energy efficiency by making buildings more airtight, relying more on interior air recirculation instead of exterior ventilation. The result: trapped mould and volatile chemicals.

Paula Baker-Laporte, an architect based in Ashland, Oregon, fell seriously ill in 1981, soon after she and her husband moved into a new mobile home. Eleven years later, a doctor linked her chronic lung ailments to high levels of formaldehyde seeping out from the mobile home’s interior.

Researchers now know that the volatile organic compound – commonly found in furniture, plywood and other materials that use glue or binding agents to hold the pieces together – can cause headaches, nosebleeds, burning eyes and respiratory difficulties. It is also a major ingredient of what people readily recognise as that ‘new-car smell’.
The fray over formaldehyde

The controversy over using formaldehyde in buildings.

“I didn’t understand that I was getting chemically sensitive; what I knew was that suddenly in my lungs, I was getting pneumonia all the time,” Baker-Laporte says.

One day, in her misery, she had an ‘Aha!’ moment: “If it’s bad for me, what about all the other people living in it?” In her ensuing quest to construct healthier homes, she came upon a set of 25 design principles under the banner of Baubiologie, or Building Biology, a movement that took root in Germany after World War II.

The movement’s founders had grown alarmed at the rise in illnesses that closely tracked the postwar building boom and use of mass-produced materials. In response, Building Biology declared nature to be the gold standard for a human environment, and emphasised the relationship between buildings, or our “third skin”, and both health and ecology. Among its principles it promoted natural materials, good indoor air quality and pleasing proportions. “A building that does not poison you,” Baker-Laporte says, “is not the same as a building that deeply nurtures you.”

Many school buildings in the USA, she has learned, can be corrosive third skins. When she first visited her daughter’s high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with its mouldy smell and dark water stains on the ceiling, she came home and cried.


The lack of attention to poor schoolroom design and maintenance may be attributable, in part, to a limitation of science: the impacts of buildings on their occupants can be notoriously difficult to single out and quantify.

Since its introduction in 1983 by the World Health Organization, ‘sick building syndrome’ has been a controversial catch-all phrase, used to describe symptoms ranging from persistent coughing, headaches and dizziness to nausea and sudden sensitivity to multiple chemicals.

Researchers can seldom point out the exact cause or offer specific treatments – other than avoiding the building entirely. Was an illness due to toxic chemicals or mould? Was it inadequate ventilation, fluctuating temperatures or bad lighting? Organisations such as the US Environmental Protection Agency now prefer phrases like ‘indoor environmental quality’, but the rebranding has done little to clarify actual cause and effect.

Varying genetic susceptibility to certain conditions, such as asthma or pneumonia, can complicate efforts to locate a source of trouble, while environmental factors can alleviate or compound the risk. In other words, people within the same building may react very differently to the same toxin or irritant, such as Baker-Laporte and her unaffected husband. And until recently, most studies failed to consider how these factors might specifically impact children. “Kids are not little adults, right?” says Megan Sandel, a paediatrician and public health expert at Boston University. The distinction might be obvious, but it’s a point that she finds herself repeating often.

Children have a higher lung-to-body ratio, by volume, than adults, meaning that anything they breathe in will be present in their bodies in proportionately higher amounts. Also, because water makes up a higher percentage of their body mass, they hold on to toxins for longer. And, their brains are still developing, meaning that they have lower thresholds for tolerating neurotoxins than a fully developed brain.

So why have so few studies looked directly at how physical spaces impact kids? For starters, occupational health is far more regulated around the world than school health, which means fewer attempts at biomonitoring, inspections and investigations take place in schools than in workplaces.

Testing the health and comfort of classroom occupants is also highly contentious. Ten years ago researchers at the Florida Solar Energy Center presented a side-by-side comparison of standard portable classrooms and the Center’s own Performance Enhanced Relocatable Classroom (PERC) units. At one test site, in Orlando, Florida, the elementary school campus consisted entirely of portables.

The Center designed its PERC units – also tested at schools in New York and North Carolina – to use less energy, have improved air quality and enhanced levels of natural lighting. The new models all proved more energy efficient, with the ones in Florida beating their counterparts by 65 per cent. But study co-author Stephanie Thomas-Rees, a research architect at the Center, says she and her colleagues weren’t allowed to evaluate the impact of the light and air enhancements on student performance. Instead, she could only ask teachers “off-the-record” questions.

“That is the nature of the beast,” she writes in an email, explaining that no parents would want to know that their child was stuck in a classroom alongside one with better features. She and her colleagues recognise the benefits of improved air and daylight to students, she says. “It’s just a sensitive subject when you are dealing with limited school facility budgets compounded with overpopulated schools, underpaid teachers and rising electric prices.”

Mark Mendell, a staff scientist/epidemiologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, says it’s been hard to find school districts that will agree to participate in his studies of ventilation rates, “because they’re just worried that we’ll find out something that will not reflect well”. Portland architect Leite and her husband, Sergio Palleroni, also “didn’t want to rock the boat” in order to preserve their working relationship with a school district, and refrained from publishing findings that suggested a portable classroom had poor indoor air quality.

If these observational studies are fraught, it’s not hard to imagine the uproar over a randomised controlled trial. “In environmental health, you’re not going to be able to randomise one kid to a toxic classroom, and randomise another kid to a nontoxic classroom, and see what happens,” Sandel says.

Despite the lack of schoolroom data, studies of kids in other spaces may be filling in some of the blanks. In 2002 Sandel testified in a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the State of California. In Williams v. State of California the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the state had failed to ensure an adequate learning environment for its students, particularly those in low-income and minority communities.

Sandel, who studies the impact of conditions at home on kids’ health, recalls being “hammered” by the state’s lawyers on how she could apply conclusions from studies focused on housing to a schoolroom environment. “What I said there is that if it’s bad for you in your house, it’s going to bad for you in your school,” Sandel says. “There’s nothing to suggest that rats in your house are bad, but rats in your school are okay.”

The same might be said for lead paint, asbestos, mercury and other established toxins, while Sandel says evidence is mounting on how noise, mould, pests and other exposures at home can also harm kids. In fact, she says, recent studies suggest that exposure to some irritants such as allergens may be even worse in schools. (As part of a nearly $1 billion settlement to resolve the Williams v. California case in 2004, the state agreed to allocate $800 million for critical repairs to school facilities.)


Some illnesses that might have been shunted off as sick building syndrome in the past are now being more definitively reclassified as ‘building-related illness’ and blamed on known causes such as mould or formaldehyde. The science of interior spaces is starting to take off.

One co-conspirator, research suggests, may be inadequate ventilation. Talk to enough architects and researchers and you will hear a recurring story about schools’ heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems – especially in portable classrooms. One version of the story goes like this:

Kids in an enclosed space are like little furnaces. Most HVAC systems struggle to expel the excess energy and condition the incoming air, requiring them to operate at higher fan speeds.

Many of these fans become so loud that students can’t hear the teacher. So the teacher turns off the system. And then it fails to heat, ventilate or condition the air. The students can now hear, but can’t think, the story goes. In a widely cited study of portable classrooms in California, 60 per cent of teachers said they regularly turned off the noisy units.

Modular building manufacturers say they’ve worked with acoustical experts to address the noise issue, and that improper placement of many structures has contributed to their ventilation woes. “I can’t tell you how often we have seen classrooms placed in parking lots near idling buses and cars,” says Hardiman from the Modular Building Institute.

Relocation, of course, isn’t always possible. A 2012 study found that schools near London’s Heathrow Airport are more likely to be overheated and have poor indoor air quality – in large part because teachers close the windows, the main source of ventilation, to reduce aircraft noise.

Derek Clements-Croome, Professor Emeritus of Architectural Engineering at Reading University in the UK, led one of the few efforts to assess directly how inadequate ventilation might have an impact on student performance. For a 2012 study he and his colleagues picked eight primary schools around Reading. In each they installed identical-looking natural ventilation systems in two classrooms. In the first room the system actively brought in fresh air. In the second it only recirculated the interior air.

The team recorded far higher levels of carbon dioxide in the latter group of classrooms. And tests overseen by a psychologist on the team found that the children in these classrooms had significantly more trouble remembering the relative position of six pictures shown briefly on a screen or recognising a non-word among four choices.

The authors recommended that classrooms should offer at least eight litres of fresh air per second per person. Clements-Croome also suggests that schools install a carbon dioxide monitor to track levels.

In his own study Mark Mendell from Lawrence Berkeley saw significantly higher absenteeism rates in classrooms with lower ventilation. Research in other high-density buildings, from nursing homes to jails, has suggested that decreased ventilation rates correlate with increased respiratory problems.

School funding in the USA is based on average attendance figures, meaning that the financial impacts of unhealthy schools might be measurable if researchers could definitively link decreased funding to increased student absences due to illness – no easy task. Mendell and others have suggested that if the connection bears out in kids, raising ventilation rates could more than pay for itself by significantly reducing illness-related absences.

Poor ventilation, on its own, doesn’t necessarily harm a room’s occupants. Rather, researchers say, it may fail to dilute any harmful substances that already exist in the air. Carbon dioxide levels have become a common proxy for assessing how well a ventilation system can remove such pollutants. But not everyone is convinced that the method is reliable, or that carbon dioxide itself is a significant contributor to the air pollution problem.

Despite the uncertainty, carbon dioxide is at least on the radar of researchers. An overwhelming majority of chemicals are not.

According to the Green Science Policy Institute, an estimated 80,000 chemicals are now on the market in consumer products. Many are used in building materials. Roughly 85 per cent have no publically available health data. And about 67 per cent have no known data at all.

Organisations like the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute have begun pushing companies to openly declare their ingredient lists. “Shouldn’t we demand the same information from the materials we buy as from the food we eat?” says James Connelly, the Institute’s Living Building Challenge coordinator.

As part of the Challenge, in which building manufacturers enter projects for various green certifications, entrants are prohibited from using roughly 500 items already linked to health concerns.

It’s not just about weeding out the worst aspects of a physical environment, however. Recent studies have suggested that limiting some of the best aspects – such as daylight – can also have a profound negative impact.

Most artificial lights skew toward the red-wavelength end of the visible light spectrum. But in reviewing the consequences of what he calls “our increasing detachment from the sun”, circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster at the University of Oxford in the UK describes how a key photoreceptor in the eye responds more powerfully to the blue wavelengths of daylight.

This light detection system, part of the primitive circadian system charged with regulating our daily rhythms, evolved independently of vision. Within specialised cells a light-sensitive pigment called Opn4 uses blue light (very similar to the ‘blue’ of a clear blue sky, Foster notes) as a cue that signals the brain to suppress the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and encourage the alertness-promoting hormone serotonin.

With bright sunshine delivering up to 500 times as much illumination as artificial lights, the natural blue in sunlight is unsurprisingly a far stronger stimulus than what might be found in blue hues of LEDs and other newer lights.

“We live our lives in dim caves,” Foster writes. “Modern architectural design has the opportunity, by letting light into our lives, to liberate humanity from the gloom and [allow] our bodies to use the natural pattern of light and dark to optimise our biology.”

Daylight also produces an unpredictable sparkle effect that a regularly oscillating fluorescent tube cannot match. Because our primitive brain associates the random glint of light bouncing off multiple surfaces with being outside, it delivers an urgent message to the body to be alert. In other words, students are more likely to stay awake in a naturally lit classroom.

Several studies have shown an association between daylight and student performance, though to varying degrees. Perhaps the best known, conducted by the California-based Heschong Mahone Group, found higher scores on standardised maths and reading tests in classrooms with more daylight. (They also found, however, that the positive effects of daylight could be negated by poor design.)

Multiple research papers have likewise supported the healing and stress-relieving benefits of light in hospital settings, while work by environmental psychologist Judith Heerwagen has suggested that daylight delivers a potent psychological boost. Medical research has also directly contradicted one past justification for windowless rooms by suggesting that long-distance views – such as through a nearby window – can help alleviate eyestrain.


Although different in name and style, multiple movements are converging on a conviction that buildings should promote health rather than harm it, and that the personal wellbeing of those inside – whether staff or students – need not come at the expense of the environment outside.

David Eyer, a building designer based in Prague, brought the Baubiologie movement to the Czech Republic about a decade ago. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the country was finally free to begin thinking about architecture that aspired to something beyond the paneláks, the huge, boxy ‘panel houses’ that still dominate Prague’s periphery. Beyond brutalism. Or minimalism.

Just steps from Prague’s bustling Old Town Square, Eyer sits on a small stoop and points out the stately, centuries-old buildings surrounding the decidedly more tranquil Ungelt Square. Each is solid, imperfect, proportionate, inspiring, he says. It’s one of his favourite spots in the city. A strong centre like this one, he says, acts like an anchor and lets you create around it.

Eyer is now working on his doctorate, with a thesis on vitality in architectural spaces. A kindergarten whose construction he oversaw in a nearby village called Sluštice features natural materials, two main rooms filled with daylight, and a big central courtyard where the youngsters can play. His wife Jitka wanted to cry when she first saw it. “She knew it would be so good for the kids,” he recalls.

He has never heard of a portable classroom.

In the UK the ambitious £55 billion Building Schools for the Future programme emphasised rebuilding or remodelling existing secondary schools to enhance student learning and safety. The programme, however, was scrapped in 2010 due to cost overruns and charges of massive bureaucracy and waste.

A study conducted in response to the controversy, led by Peter Barrett at Manchester’s University of Salford, suggested that classroom design does, in fact, have an impact on student performance. So far, the study of more than 3,700 pupils in three cities has found that 17 per cent of the variation in learning rates may be attributable to physical factors within a classroom. Among them: indoor air quality, ambient light, and whether the space is moderately stimulating or awash in visual clutter.

The take-home message, he says, is that making a big impact on learning may not require a fancy design – only a well-considered one.

Other studies suggest that even small changes can deliver dividends. In a 2012 study researchers found that houseplants improved the indoor air quality within a primary school classroom in Portugal, in particular by reducing carbon dioxide and volatile organic compound levels. The results are in line with previous findings by NASA.

Doing away with all inferior classroom spaces may be impossible in the short term. But the knowledge and technology exists to dramatically improve many of their deficiencies. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the growing efforts of collaboratives and companies (with names like SEED, SAGE, Project Frog and Gen7) to redesign portables. Given their smaller size and lower cost, portables are proving to be an increasingly attractive test bed for innovative classroom features.

Leite and Palleroni, architects at Portland State University, joined the movement to redesign portables after learning that their school-age daughter’s class would be moving into one. “It took a very personal note for us,” Palleroni says.

A dozen of their SAGE classrooms – short for Smart Academic Green Environment – have been deployed in schools in the states of Oregon and Washington. While the structures’ energy needs have been reduced significantly, Palleroni says the major focus has been on daylight and fresh air because of their “huge” role in influencing health and performance.

The designers are all well aware of the severe cost constraints faced by school districts, many of which routinely beg parents for basic supplies. As part of their pitch, then, the architects have taken pains to point out the long-term savings of new alternatives, whose average upfront purchase and installation costs run 30 to 100 per cent higher than those of traditional models.

Unencumbered by any utility bills, Smedley says, a SEED classroom in Seattle would start saving the school district money after 11 years – about half the typical lifespan of a portable. Each SEED has been designed to last 100.

Changing the trajectory has become more urgent for her as well. Her son, Jack, is now three years old, and could be in a portable classroom in just two years. “He’s a constant reminder of the work I need to do,” she says.

This summer, Smedley was invited to join a subcommittee tasked with advising Washington state on whether prefabricated classrooms built to last at least 30 years should be recognised more as permanent, ‘modular’ structures rather than as temporary, portable ones. In her ongoing struggle to get her units into public schools, “that’s the first big glimpse of hope,” she says.

Again and again, the people who lament our culture of impermanence use the same phrase in their arguments for better classrooms: “built to last”. The schools of old were far from perfect, they concede. But their Roman columns and stately neoclassical or Queen Anne facades reflected the importance that cities and nations attached to education. “Now, we put our kids in these little boxes, and we figure, ‘Oh, they’re only there temporarily and they don’t care,’” Leite says. “But children are relying on adults to make those kinds of decisions, and I think we’ve fallen apart on them.”


Here is another classroom of girls and boys: they are 10 and 11 years old, and trying not to talk all at once about the things they love the most. One by one, the 20 or so fourth and fifth graders at Seattle’s Perkins School are presenting their polished adverts in matching white picture frames – some in 184-point type and many in bright colours.

All are focused on selling other schools a SEED portable like the one that Smedley and her colleagues delivered to their small campus. In the autumn it will become their new science classroom.

“I’m using facts to prove that the SEED building is cool,” says one girl.

Another points out the speech bubble in her advert that says, “I can focus more because it’s not stuffy.”

“Regular portable materials poison the atmosphere,” says a boy.

Another boy emphasises the composting toilets. “It’s kind of a big deal,” he says. Other classmates favour the sun-reflecting skylights, the swing, the wall of plants, the solar panels.


It ends with boys and girls from Canada. The kids in the Jasper Sustainability Club for Youth who helped the SEED Collaborative design its prototype, who planned the floor themselves with a pattern of multicoloured carpet squares that look like an aerial view of the province’s grassland, farmland, rivers and mountains, are still waiting for a SEED to call their own.

In the meantime, however, their district has found the funds to build a permanent secondary school that will share space with a French-language school. Featuring day-lit rooms with mountain views, a rooftop garden, living walls, an outdoor classroom and other design ideas from the youth group, the environmentally friendly building opened in September 2014.

Amid the trembling aspen and Douglas firs of Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, a new school with room for 525 kids has been built to last. And on the site of the old 1950s-era school next to it, the town will reclaim some green space – by building a new park.

Author: Bryn Nelson
Editor: Chrissie Giles
Copyeditor: Rob Reddick
Fact checker: Francine Almash
Art director: Peta Bell
Illustrator: Alice Tye

Via Mosaic: The Science of Life

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5 Top Reasons Romney ought to have Withdrawn

January 31st, 2015 Comments off

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Likely the reasons Mitt Rimney decided not to run for a third time are financial – the big money just wouldn’t make another bet on a serial loser.

But here is why he shouldn’t have even thought about running in a rational world:

1. In his famous slam at the 47% of Americans who depend on the government he included veterans and retirees who paid into social security in the ‘moocher’ category. Veterans!

2. After inventing Obamacare as governor of Massachusetts, Romney did an about face and condemned the idea of universal health care coverage. He was just pandering to the Tea Party & was willing to see millions of working poor families risk bankruptcy or death rather than support his own plan as implemented by Obama.

3. When pressed for an alternative to Obamacare, Romney urged emergency room treatment. But ER physicians pointed out that there aren’t enough to meet the need. And, ER treatment costs are very high and are passed on to the taxpayer. I.e. ER treatment for the poor is a huge stealth tax on the middle class.

4. Romney pledged to do the ‘opposite’ of Obama in foreign policy, complaining of Obama’s opposition to creeping Israeli annexation of the Palestinian West Bank. Indeed Romney urged kicking the can down the road, i.e. Doing nothing as the Likud Party gobbles up the rest of Palestine…

5. …and slamming Obama’s Iran talks and threatening to undo them in favor of a more war-like stance toward Iran– i.e. risking war with that country.

Romney keeps crowing about being a foreign policy prophet, but on Iran and Israel-Palestine he has no idea what he is talking about.
And on domestic issues he was either an insufferable millionaire snob or lacked the courage of his own convictions. Not presidential material.

CNN: Romney Withdraws

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In 10 Years, No One In Helsinki Will Even Want to Own a Car: 3 Simple Ideas That Are Making Cities Sustainable

January 31st, 2015 Comments off

By Shannan Stoll | (YES! Magazine | “Cities are Now”)

An app that combines the affordability of ride sharing with the reliability of taxis. Playgrounds built as sponges for reusable greywater. From Finland to California, the cities of the future are here.

1. A bus that will pick you up anywhere in the city with the use of a smartphone app.

in: Helsinki

By 2025, public transportation in Helsinki will be so good that no one living in the city will have any reason to own a car.

That’s the goal the city announced earlier this year, and Helsinki is serious about it. The Helsinki Regional Transport Authority is piloting an on-call minibus service called Kutsuplus. The service uses an algorithm and a smartphone app to combine the affordability of ride sharing with the on-call service of a taxi.

Riders hail buses on a smartphone; an automated system routes and reroutes the fleet to create the most efficient service for patrons heading in the same direction. It’s cheaper than a taxi and more convenient than a bus.

Free wi-fi and storage for bikes or strollers are included, too. Compared with traffic jams, parking fees, and car maintenance, on-demand public transit in Helsinki is looking pretty good.

2. Absorbent playgrounds that reuse greywater.

in: Philadelphia

At Herron Park in South Philadelphia, monkey bars and sliding poles sit on top of a recycled rubber play surface that absorbs water like a sponge. Meandering pathways direct water into gardens filled with native Pennsylvania trees and shrubs. Even the basketball court is designed with an asphalt mixture that percolates water into the soil below.

Nearby, Wharton Street Lofts offers apartments with city views from the building’s green-roof deck, while a greywater system captures and reuses rainwater on-site. Just a few years ago, both locations were almost entirely covered in concrete and asphalt.

Projects like these two in South Philadelphia are part of a network of green infrastructure that’s springing up across the city. It’s the core of the Philadelphia Water Department’s Green City, Clean Waters program. Philadelphia is the first city in the country to put green infrastructure at the center of plans to address federal Clean Water Act requirements and manage stormwater runoff.

The 2011 plan commits $2.4 billion to turn the city from grey to green within 25 years. It’s a blueprint for a new urban landscape that sends water into the soil instead of down the pipe.

3. Finally, an easy way for property owners to invest in renewable energy.

in: Berkeley, Calif.

Sometimes bold innovations on a local scale can set the stage for change nationwide. In 2008, the City of Berkeley launched a pilot program to make it easier for property owners to invest in renewable energy.

Steep installation costs often make converting to renewable energy prohibitive for property owners. To overcome this hurdle, Berkeley offered 100 percent funding for renewable energy projects. Property owners could repay the funds gradually over 20 years through a special property tax assessment.

Berkeley’s program served as a model for the nationwide Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program. Today, PACE financing is available to commercial or residential property owners in more than 800 municipalities. When property owners invest in efficiency upgrades or renewable energy, they save money, reduce carbon emissions, and supply green jobs. With the widespread success of PACE, local governments are clearing the way for investments.

Shannan Stoll wrote this article for Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Shannan is a freelance writer living in Washington state.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

LinkTV: “Hamburg: Green City of the Future?”

Via a Creative Commons License

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The Turkish Attack on the Suez Canal, 1915, Part II: The British Defenses, 1: Naval and Air Units

January 31st, 2015 Comments off

Yesterday I began this series on the Ottoman attack on the Suez Canal in January/February 1915 with a look at the Ottoman plans and order of battle. Today  we will look at the British defense preparations. The British preparations are recorded in much more detail, and today I want to begin with looking at naval and air deployments. On Monday, we’ll look at the British/Indian/ANZAC ground force deployments. (Other than a few machine-gun units and some logistical support, the Egyptian Army was not used; Egypt was not a recognized belligerent.)

The Royal Navy

Admiral Richard Peirse

While both sides in the Canal battle had ground troops and a handful of aircraft, Brittania still ruled the waves, and the Royal Navy is considered the senior service, so it is appropriate to begin with the naval defens of Britain’s vital naval lifeline to India. As we noted last year, the Commander-in Chief of Britain’s East Indies Station in the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia, Vice Admiral Richard Peirse, had transferred his command to Port Said in order to defend the Canal.

HMS Swiftsure

His flagship, HMS Swiftsure, a pre-Dreadnought class battleship, was based at Port Said. and the other British battleship on the scene, HMS Ocean was at Suez at the southern end of the Canal. The other heavy battleship, the French Requin, was an older ship built in 1885 and now classed as  coastal defense ship. It was birthed in a dredged birth in Lake Timsah, in mid-Canal.

Besides the capital ships, there were two protected cruisers, HMS Minerva and the French cruiser D’Entrecasteaux, the British sloop Clio, the British Armed Merchant Cruiser Himalaya (to be transferred fully to the Navy later), and the royal Indian Marine Ship RIMS Hardinge, in the naval service of British India.

The British plan was to deploy these vessels along the length of the Canal, particularly in those areas where their big naval guns could be brought to bear against attackers from the East Bank. There were certain limitations. As the official Naval History notes:

Though the canal provided excellent lateral communication, its advantage was a good deal discounted by the fact that in many places the sand dunes on the east bank were too high for the shell of the heavy guns to clear. This was specially the case from El Ferdan to Lake Timsah, also with all the centre section from Timsah to Deversoir, and finally the four miles between the southern end of the Bitter Lake and Shallufa. This difficulty also necessitated special arrangements for indirect fire wherever the gunlayers could not see over the banks, and their work was further hampered by the almost continuous mirage in the desert. A minor direct fire, however, was obtained by mounting light quick-firing guns and Maxims on the tops. The patrol boats could, of course, in no case fire over the banks, but they had power to enfilade any trenches the enemy might try to establish on the banks themselves.

The ships were deployed along the length of the Canal, a key support for the Infantry and Artillery Forces deployed along the Canal. As the Turkish force approached, the Royal Navy moved to their assigned stations along the Canal.

HMS Swiftsure moved from Port Said to take station just north of Qantara. As noted, she was also the flagship.

HMS Clio

A bit further south at the Ballah Ferry, the sloop HMS Clio took up station.

French coastal defense ship Requin

The French Requin was already berthed in Lake Timsah near Ismailia, as mentioned.


Now the French protected cruiser D’Entrecasteaux moved to take position near the Requin,  also in Lake Timsah, but subsequently was moved south to Deversoir near the Great Bitter Lake.

RIMS Hardinge

Near that place the RIMS Hardinge, the aforementioned Royal Indian Marine Ship, was already deployed.
 It stood to the northwest of D’Entecasteaux.

The cruiser HMS Minerva took position at the Little Bitter Lake.


To the southward, the armed merchant cruiser Himalaya took position at Shallufa.

And finally, anchoring this line of naval power on the south just as Swiftsure was on the north, the other battleship, HMS Ocean, took position at El Shatt, where a major road across Sinai crosses the Canal near Suez.

The British and French aircraft presence

Air power was still very new in January 1915. The Wright Brothers first flew in 1903 and sold an aircraft to the US Army in 1909. In 1911 during the Italo-Turkish War in Libya, Italy became the first country to use aerial bombing in wartime. (They also used Zeppelins.) In the Suez campaign, British land-based aircraft and French seaplanes proved invaluable in detecting and tracking the Ottoman advance across Sinai, thus denying the Turks the element of surprise. As I already discussed that role in a January 13 post,  for completeness’ sake I am simply going to quote what I said then, and the passages I quoted then, and the photo I ran then:

The British had only a handful of reconnaissance aircraft available in Egypt, along with some French seaplanes. The British Official History (Military Operations Egypt and Palestine) describes the situation:

Egypt was watchful and fairly well informed. The British aeroplanes available were incapable of long flights. [The detachment under Major S. D. Massy, 29th Punjabis, consisted of three Maurice Farmans sent from Avonmouth in November, two Henri Farmans taken over in Egypt, and one B3.E2a which arrived from India in December. The aerodrome was at Ismailia, with a landing ground at Qantara. For long reconnaissances into Sinai it was found necessary to send out troops to prepare temporary landing grounds some miles east of the Suez Canal. The longest flight ever carried out was 176 miles, for which a specially large petrol tank had to be fitted to the machine. This, however, was after the Turkish attack on the Suez Canal.] The French seaplanes, put at Sir J. Maxwell’s disposal in November, of which there were seven in the Aenne Rickmers – a captured cargo steamer equipped as a seaplane carrier at Port Said, were better, though far from powerful enough for the work they were called upon to perform. Hard driven Jan, by an energetic commander, Lieutenant de Vaisseau de l’Escaille, they carried out reconnaissance flights which were remarkable, particularly in view of the fact that the forced descent of a seaplane on land meant almost certain death for pilot and observer. [Thus in December Lieutenant de Vaisseau Destrem, with a British officer as observer, on two occasions flew up the Wadi Arabi from Aqaba and strove to surmount the steep range east of the valley, in order to reconnoitre Ma’an, on the Hejaz Railway. The task was beyond the power of the 80 h.p. engine, but attempts were continued by him and others until Sir J. Maxwell ordered them to stop, fearing that they would cost him one of his invaluable pilots. In the same month Lieutenant de Vaisseau Delage took off from the Doris off El Arish, flew over Gaza, then turned south-east to Beersheba. On his return his engine stopped while he was still ten miles from the sea. The wind just carried the seaplane over the water, but it was in a sinking condition when the Doris steamed up from El Arish (a distance of 35 miles) to its rescue.] From information obtained by them and from the reports of agents it became clear that the attack would not be much longer delayed, and almost certain that it would come through Central Sinai. It was known to the headquarters of the Force in Egypt that a large force, including the 10th, 23rd, and 27th Divisions, was assembled close to the frontier about Beersheba.

A report by General Sir John Maxwell, the overall commander in Egypt, discusses the air situation before and during the attack on the Canal:

Part of 30th Squadron Royal Flying Corps, under the command of Brevet Major S. D. Massy, I.A., with Headquarters at Ismailia, carried out daily reconnaissances without a single important accident. 

The French Naval Seaplane detachment, with Headquarters at Port Said, under the command of Capitaine de Vaisseau de-l’Escaille, whose services were placed at my disposal for Intelligence purposes, was continually employed in reconnoitering the Syrian, and Anatolian Coast from the requisitioned vessels “Raven” and “Anne” The results of their work were invaluable. The “Anne” was torpedoed near Smyrna during an armistice while employed by the Royal Navy, but was fortunately able to reach Mudros, where she was patched up and returned to Port Said. I cannot speak too highly of the work of the seaplane detachment. Lengthy land flights are extremely dangerous, yet nothing ever stopped these gallant French aviators from any enterprise. I regret the loss of  two of these planes whilst making dangerous land flights over Southern Syria.

The air reconnaissance capabilities may have been limited, but they gave the British ample warning that the Turkish Army was moving into Sinai.

HMS Anne (ex-German Aenne Rickmers); 2 seaplanes either side of rear mast

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