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images by Sally Kneidel
“Burning in the Sun” featuring Daniel Dumbele. Note the film-festival awards across the top.

My husband loped into the living room while I was watching the DVD, “Burning in the Sun”. He had hoped to turn on a baseball game, but he stopped, watching a scene on the DVD. After a minute, he sat down.

“What’s this?,” he asked me.

“It’s a documentary I was asked to review,” I told him. “It’s the best film I’ve seen about solar since Jeff Barrie and ‘Kilowatt Ours’. About this young guy in Mali who makes solar panels by hand and distributes them to villages that have no electricity. It’s really good.”

Ken stayed and watched the whole thing with me.

Charismatic Daniel yearns to help his country
“Burning in the Sun” is the most memorable environmental documentary I’ve seen in a while. But it’s also a compelling personal story that would be interesting even if the star, charming Daniel Dumbele, were selling shoes instead of PV panels. It’s a plug for non-polluting, affordable solar power, but it’s also about parental influence, about youth struggling for meaningful livelihood, about West African rural culture – all of which are fascinating to me.

Can’t help but love this lad: equal parts European and West African
Daniel was raised in Mali by his European mother after his West African father died. Growing up, Daniel helped his mother install 350 wells throughout inpoverished rural Mali, saving lives by providing clean and safe drinking water. Said Daniel, “For me, it’s nice and normal to be trying to help my people.” At the age of 26, Daniel decided to start his own project: he learned how to make solar PV panels for $200 instead of the usual $1000, by piecing together broken PV cells discarded by American corporations. He uses all local materials to make the panels, except for the broken PV cells he carefully trims and fits together like puzzle pieces.

Daniel hoists a panel he made to a rooftop in Mali

As the DVD unfolds, Daniel sets out to distribute the completed panels, with more requests for them than he can fill. He focuses first on the village of Banko, holding a workshop for local people to teach them how to install the panels and set up the wiring. He’s assisted in the beginning by a solar physicist and a female solar engineer, as he masters the circuitry for getting energy from the panel to the lightbulbs – which turns out to be quite simple. Click here to see a film trailer.

Daniel’s panels profoundly affect students’ exam results
After Daniel’s efforts, the school in Banko is illuminated for the first time, and the students (girls and boys) flock into the brightly lit room in the evenings to do their homework.  The film tells us that the year before getting lights, only 20% of the Banko children passed their national exams. The year after, 97% passed!

Micro-loans make panels affordable
Daniel explains that he plans to sell the panels in the city, where customers will have to pay him cash. Then he will be able to offer “micro-credit” or “micro-loans” to the rural villagers, most of whom are farmers, allowing them a year to pay him back for their panels. Or even allowing them to barter for the panels.

Daniel finds a way to help the world while supporting himself  – a feat that still eludes me
The documentary caught Daniel at precisely that point in this life where he’s trying to figure out how to help his people in his own way, while at the same time making a living. As a mother of two twenty-somethings myself, I was moved by Daniel’s search for livelihood. I also know from my own struggles that it’s not easy to make a living by serving a cause. I still haven’t figured out how!

Afriq-Power attracts big clients
Daniel is making it work. In 2006, his company “Afriq-Power” opened a storefront in Bamako, Mali’s capital city. His clients now include USAID, Geekcorps, and the US Embassy. Daniel’s company electrifies health centers and schools, and installs solar-powered pumps in rural Mali. Daniel recently won a $30,000 contract to build 400 panels to power radios in Malian villages.

Ken’s students were intriqued by the DVD
As I watched the captivating story of Daniel’s journey, my husband Ken was sucked into it too, and forgot all about the baseball game he’d intended to watch. Ken was so enraptured with the DVD, he watched both versions (83 minutes and 22 minutes), and then took the film to work to show his classes. The next evening he told me that it had sparked class discussions about the association between the education of girls and reduction of birth rates, about the concept of microloans, about the diversity of races at work on the project and the inclusion of both genders as solar “experts”. Most of all, after studying global poverty in the abstract, his students really enjoyed the personal nature of “Burning in the Sun.” Me too!

I strongly endorse this film
I recommend this inspirational and informative documentary to anyone – for personal viewing at home, to fuel family discussions, to illustrate multiple issues to students – poverty in developing nations, grass-roots solutions to our environmental crises, communities working together learn new technologies. “Burning in the Sun” is perhaps the most fully-fleshed out documentary I’ve seen yet – a very human story about the monumental problems that threaten our planet.

For more information and a way to contribute, see the website for the film.

Keywords: Burning in the Sun Afriq-Power solar panels PV Mali Daniel Dumbele documentary

Photo showing an orangutan engaged in the TUBE task. Photo used with permission of the researcher  William Hopkins.

Mmm, love that peanut butter
Apes are right-handed or left-handed, just like us. Not a big surprise, since they’re our closest evolutionary relatives. A research team led by William Hopkins of Agnes Scott College recently tested 777 captive apes  – orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Each ape was given a PVC tube 15 cm in length and 2.5 cm in diameter, with peanut butter smeared in both ends. The peanut butter was too far inside to reach with their mouths. The apes had to hold the tube with one hand and reach inside with a finger of the other hand. The researchers recorded which hand the apes used to reach inside for the peanut butter.  Each ape was tested on 2 to 4 occasions, in solitude if possible.

Only the orangs were left-handed
Orangutans turned out to be the only southpaws. The majority of gorillas and chimps are right-handed, as are 90% of humans. Bonobos showed no significant handedness at the population level. Hopkins believes that handedness at the population level in apes may be a result of ecological adaptations associated with posture and locomotion (personal communication with Hopkins).  He plans further research to try to understand why orangutans are left-handed, while other apes and humans are right-handed in general. It may be somehow related to the fact that orangutans are the most arboreal of the apes.

Hopkins’ research will soon be published: Journal of Human Evolution 60 (2011) 605-611.

Orangutans at a sanctuary on Borneo, drinking milk. Note that they’re holding hands!  Photo: Sally Kneidel

Handedness in crows too
Apes are not the only nonhumans to display handedness.  In 2007 I wrote this post about research by Gavin Hunt of the University of Auckland, who documented handedness and tool-making in New Caledonia crows.

Post by Sally Kneidel, PhD

For further reading on primate conservation and behavior, and my observations of wild orangutans on Borneo and Sumatra, check out some of my earlier primate posts:

Some of my earlier primate posts:
Trade a major threat to primate survival. March 21, 2011
We are family: new evidence of our close link to chimps Feb 16, 2011
Is males’ attraction to trucks and balls genetically based? Jan 14, 2011
Hunting may threaten orangutans even more than habitat loss Dec 6, 2010
Wildlife trade rivals drug trade in profits September 20, 2010
Laws flaunted: flourishing pet trade threatens orangutans’ survival August 23, 2010
My search for a wild orangutan in Borneo and Sumatra August 16, 2010
Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations August 3, 2010
The great apes are losing ground March, 2010
The U.S. imports 20,000 primates per year. February, 2010
Baboons are Africa’s most widespread primate. Females rule! December 30, 2009
Mama monkeys give in to tantrums….when others are watching. April 23, 2009
Angry chimp reveals a “uniquely human” ability. March 21, 2009
Monkeys and parrots pouring from the jungle. September, 2008
Chimps’ short-term memory is better than humans’ April 2, 2008
Chimps share human trait of altruism August 3, 2007

Keywords: orangutans chimps gorillas apes handedness William Hopkins

Border collie. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A retired psychology professor has taught his dog 1022 nouns as well as several verbs, reports the New York Times. Dr. John Pilley set out to beat the record of a German border collie that had learned to recognize 200 objects. Pilley, who taught at Wofford College for 30 years, read about the German dog in the journal Science in 2004. He bought his own border collie, Chaser, as a puppy in the same year. They’ve been working together four to five hours a day ever since.

Border collies are among the smartest of dogs. They’re working dogs, bred to herd sheep, and have a strong instinct to work and to learn commands from humans. Pilley says Chaser seems to love the lessons and always wants more.

Chaser’s lessons

To teach Chaser the name of an object, Pilley shows it to Chaser, says the name of it up to 40 times, then hides it and asks Chaser to find it, while repeating the name over and over. For the first few years, Pilley taught Chaser 1 or 2 new names a day, and continued to reinforce any names she had forgotten.

Within 3 years of starting the lessons, Chaser had learned the names for 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and a collection of plastic objects.  When the dog had learned 1000 names, Pilley decided to begin exploring other aspects of language than just nouns. He has demonstrated now that she also has the capacity to understand verbs. (This isn’t surprising, given that a sheep herder’s commands to his border collie are often verbs directing the dog’s actions.)  Chaser  quickly learned to either paw, nose, or take an object in response to Pilley’s commands, demonstrating that she understands that verbs have meaning.

Chaser has also learned categories. For example, she knows that “Fetch a Frisbee” means any of her 26 Frisbees, or “Fetch a ball” means any of the balls.

She can also identify a new object by exclusion – selecting it from among objects that she already knows.

Visual cues ruled out

Pilley has confirmed Chaser’s vocabulary in settings where she can hear him but can’t see him. This rules out the use of visual clues, such as facial expressions or subtle gestures, that could tell Chaser when she has the correct object. Border collies have been bred to be especially observant of gestures because they are part of the communication between a herder and his or her dog.

Pilley’s findings to date are reported in the current issue of the journal Behavioural Processes. The retired professor says he’s continuing to work on grammar with Chaser, and developing ways to improve communication between people and dogs.

Juliane Kaminski, part of the research team that worked with the German dog (Rico), says that demonstrating syntax would be interesting.  Syntax would include recognizing that changing the order of words can change the meaning of the sentence.  (As in “Bite cat” versus “Cat bites.”)

Chimps and gorillas use American Sign Language

There’s been a lot of research on teaching language to other animals. Chimps and gorillas lack the vocal anatomy to talk, but they can use their hands to make signs.  I worked with Dr. Roger Fouts at the University of Oklahoma teaching American Sign Language to a small colony of chimpanzees. The chimps lived on a small island at the Primate Institute. Fouts was a pioneer in this field, along with his mentors, the Gardners, at the University of Nevada. The Gardners were the first to teach a chimpanzee (Washoe) to communicate with ASL. Dr. Penny Patterson was the first to teach a gorilla (Koko) to use ASL.

Alex the African Grey Parrot impressed language scientists

Parrots have also demonstrated abilities to learn and understand human language. Alex the African Grey Parrot was the most of parrot pupils. Dr. Irene Pepperberg taught Alex to name colors, shapes, to count small numbers, and to speak around 150 words that he could put into categories. Of course parrots can vocalize, although most birds that speak human words have no idea of the meaning of what they’re saying.

Dogs and touch screens?

Dogs are different in that they have neither the vocal anatomy to speak, or hands to allow signing. So at least for now, Chaser is limited to recognizing names of objects and responding to requests or commands. I don’t know of any experiments where dogs can be taught to “speak” by, for example, selecting words by touching symbols on a touch screen. It could be done. But has it been done? I don’t know.

Keywords: Chaser dogs Roger Fouts parrots language border collie John Pilley Wofford Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Female tears affect men’s desire. Photo: wikimedia commons

An old friend told me once that she intentionally cries in conversations with her husband when she’s not getting her way.  She might want to consider a different tactic.  New evidence suggests that a pheromone in women’s tears turns men off rather decidedly.

Two researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have just published a study in the journal Science which demonstrates that the tears of human females turn men off.

Tears contain pheromones, apparently
The researchers, Shani Gelstein and Noam Sobel, have apparently shown that human female tears contain a pheromone that reduces men’s sexual arousal.  A pheromone is a chemical produced by the body that communicates with others of the same species. For example, female dogs in heat have a scent that attracts males. Males of many species have a scent in their urine, or in glandular secretions, that advertises the boundaries of their territories and keeps competitors out.  Pheromones are very common among other mammals but have seldom (if ever) been identified in humans.

It’s interesting that, in this experiment, the subjects could not consciously smell the pheromone. But they apparently smelled it subconsciously, because it affected their behavior.

Women’s tears dampened men’s sexual response
I thought the experiment was ingenious.  The researchers collected a jar of tears from women as they watched sad film clips and tears trickled down their faces. A pad containing either tears or a salt solution that had been trickled down the same faces was then attached to each male subject’s upper lip.  Neither substance had a perceptible odor.  The men were then shown female faces; 17 of the 24 men found the female faces less alluring after whiffing tears than after whiffing salt solution.

Another 50 men showed less physiological sexual arousal after whiffing tears than after whiffing salt solution. Low sexual arousal was indicated by slow breathing rates and low levels of testosterone in their saliva.

In a final experiment, men watched a sad movie while sniffing women’s tears or sniffing a salt solution. The men sniffing tears showed a much reduced blood flow to areas of the brain that had earlier reacted strongly to an R-rated erotic movie.

The researchers don’t know what the chemical nature of the pheromone might be.  More research is need to figure that out.

How would the pheromones in women’s tears affect other women?
I never have really felt that it was to my advantage to cry in front of a man. It might catch attention, might inspire guilt or pity, but I’m not sure it’s ever really worked to my advantage. I’m curious to see the experiment repeated on female subjects.  How do females respond to whiffing the tears of other females? I imagine the response would be increased blood flow to the parts of the brain involved in care-taking, nurturing, and heart-felt sympathy.

What do you think?

Keywords: Shani Gelstein, Noam Sobel, pheromones in tears, women’s tears, tears reduce sexual response

Polar bear. Photo credit: wikimedia commons 

Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could disappear within 50 years due to greenhouse-gas emissions, said a 2007 report by the U.S. Geological Survey. The bears need Arctic sea ice in order to hunt the seals and other offshore prey that sustain them. But our warming climate is rapidly melting the vital sea ice.  Between 1979 and 2010, Arctic sea ice cover decreased by an average of 11.5% per decade. Due to loss of ice, many bears are starving to death already. The polar bear, Ursus maritimus, is now officially listed as “threatened.”
Polar bear hunting along the edge of sea ice. Photo credit: wikimedia commons

A team of scientists stationed in Alaska may have some tentative good news, though. They just published a new assessment of polar bears’ future in the Dec 16 (2010) edition of the journal Nature. Steven Amstrup, senior scientist with “Polar Bears International,” and his team reported five possible scenarios for greenhouse-gas emissions and ice melting this century. The researchers concluded that Arctic sea ice may not necessarily reach a catastrophic “tipping point” that would lead to an inevitable disintegration of all the ice.  The future of the bears’ ice depends on how much we can limit greenhouse-gas emissions in the years to come and how much we can stabilize the climate. One factor in the bears’ favor is that thinner ice (as it diminishes) becomes more responsive to the cold water below it and can more easily regrow in winter.

Amstrup’s team used climate modeling to predict “sea ice habitability” for the bears over the coming decades, an index that includes the amount of ice over the shallow waters (continental shelves) where seals and other prey hang out, the number of months per year those waters are covered with ice, and the distance between that ice and the more northerly pack ice where polar bears also hunt (there’s a limit to how far polar bears can swim from one ice mass to another).

Polar bear swimming from one pack of ice to another. Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Says Amstrup, “There’s a widely held perception that nothing can be done to help polar bears and the arctic ecosystem. Our findings show this isn’t true. Our findings offer a message of hope but they also underscore the urgent need for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. ”

For more information about Amstrup’s study and a 2-minute video message from the bear researcher, go to this page on “Polar Bears International.” Or check it out on youtube, called “Hope for Polar Bears” by Steven Amstrup.

Keywords: polar bears Steven Amstrup Polar Bears International bear conservation climate change greenhouse gas emissions global warming Arctic sea ice

Our books on this topic:Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and a Healthy Planet. 2005. Sally and Sadie Kneidel. Fulcrum Books.

Going Green: A Wise Consumer’s Guide to a Shrinking Planet. 2008. Sally and Sadie Kneidel. Fulcrum Books.

Some of my previous posts about how you can reduce greenhouse gas emissions:
Livestock produce 51% of annual worldwide gas emissions

New study: meat impacts climate more than buying local

Less meat….smaller footprint

Is local food the greenest choice?  New study says no

Earth Day: 3 things you can do

Tests performed Saturday food supply found radiation in spinach from farms six 60-75 miles south of Japan’s stricken reactors. Radioactive iodine in the spinach exceeded government safety levels three to seven times, reported food-safety officials. High levels of radioactive iodine are linked to thyroid cancer.

Milk at a dairy 20 miles from the leaking reactors was found on Wednesday to contain small amounts of iodine-131 and cesium-137.

The milk and spinach are from an agriculturally rich area, so the radioactive contamination could affect the food supply for large areas of Japan. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said that more tests are being done on other foods, and if more contamination is found, food shipments from the area will be halted.  He also insisted that the contaminated foods “pose no immediate health risks”.

More than 7,600 people were killed by the earthquake-spawned tsunami that knocked out the nuclear reactors. More than 11,000 people are still missing.

To read more about the food contamination, click here

Keywords: Fukushima Japan nuclear reactors tsunami earthquake

The EPA reported Friday afternoon that a small amount of radiation from Japan’s damaged nuclear reactors has been detected in Sacramento.  Experts have been expecting small amounts of radioactive isotopes to blow over the ocean to California beginning as early as Friday. The isotope picked up by monitors Friday is xenon-133. According to the EPA, the isotope is present in Sacramento at such low levels that it presents no danger to human health.

To read more about the Sacramento story in the LA Times, click here.

Photos of Japan’s crisis from LA Times

Keywords: Japan earthquake tsunami Sacramento xenon-133 radiation spread

Photo by Sally Kneidel

Why are massive snowfalls and cold air walloping the U.S. for the second year in a row?

I listened to the climate reporter for the NY Times, Justin Gillis, on NPR yesterday. He said our current weather is due to a breakdown in the “polar vortex.” Gillis mentioned that the U.S. had warmer winters up through 1995 – thought to be due to global climate change. Now record-setting blizzards are dumping massive amounts of snow over large areas of the U.S. And that too is thought to be due to global climate change. Does that make sense? It does.

This morning I read the newsletter of Thomas Homer-Dixon, a climate scientist in the U.K. He explained what the polar vortex is, how the melting of Arctic ice has changed it, and how that change is responsible for our brutal winter.

Even areas of the South have had multiple snowfalls this year. Photo: Sally Kneidel

What is the “polar vortex”?

Dr. Homer-Dixon explains it this way. Usually in early winter, a basin of low-pressure air forms over the Arctic Ocean’s cold sea ice. Jet streams travel west to east along this basin’s southern edge, creating a huge circular flow – the polar vortex – that travels counterclockwise around the Arctic. This flow acts as a fence, separating the Arctic’s cold air from warmer air farther south.

A warmer Arctic apparently causes colder continents

According to Homer-Dixon and other climate scientists, heat was released last winter (in Dec and Feb) by newly exposed water in the Arctic – water that used to be ice. That heat created bulges of high-pressure air over the Arctic which pressed against the polar vortex, destabilizing it. The jet streams that comprise the polar vortex broke into disconnected segments, some of which traveled north to south, pulling bitterly cold air into North America, Europe and eastern China.

Photo by Sally Kneidel

That change in wind directions is called the “Warm Arctic – Cold Continents” climate pattern.

Scientists can’t say for sure yet whether the same thing is responsible for this year’s brutal winter. But they do know that jet-stream maps for the Northern Hemisphere in late November 2010 showed the jet streams broken into “bits, pieces, loops, and circles with many north-to-south flows over North America and Eurasia.”

Writes Dr. Homer-Dixon, “People who think this winter’s brutish weather proves climate change isn’t real might want to think again.”

Keywords: climate change polar vortex Arctic ice Thomas Homer-Dixon record snow harsh winter

This letter to the editor was written in response to “Scientists connect global warming to extreme rain” (Feb.17) and “Duke earnings up 23% in 2010″ (Feb. 18) 

“Thursday the Observer reported that ‘telltale fingerprints’ in scientific data confirm that manmade climate change is fueling extreme weather events such as massive snowstorms and rainstorms. Friday we learned that Duke Energy’s 2010 earnings were up 23 percent, in large part because of extreme weather.

“Now, Duke Energy wants to raise rates to pay for new coal-fired power plants. Burning coal is a huge cause of the climate crisis. Climate change is not a “victimless crime.” Extreme weather hurts people. But it’s great for Duke Energy.

“Let’s call on Duke Energy to stop fueling the extreme weather that’s driving up our electric bills and Duke’s profits. Duke should shut down some coal plants and promote drastic conservation and energy efficiency.”

Sally Kneidel, PhD

Keywords: Duke Energy coal emissions climate change energy efficiency Duke Energy drives up energy bills Duke Energy drives up coal emissions Duke Energy fuels climate change Duke Energy fuels extreme weather coal fuels extreme weather coal fuels climate change

South African lion taking a break from his kill, a Cape buffalo. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Lions extinct in 10-15 years? That’s the prediction of National Geographic explorers-in-residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert. The couple have studied and filmed Africa’s big cats for more than 25 years. They say that wild lions have declined from 400,000 in 1960 to around 20,000 today.

“The Last Lions”

Based in Botswana, the Jouberts have a new documentary and a companion book, both called “The Last Lions” (see link below). This latest film follows a solitary female lion in the Okavango Delta of Botswana as she tries to feed and protect her three cubs after her mate dies. Female lions usually live and hunt in a group, with a single male as protector against intruding males. A solitary female alone is at a serious disadvantage. Females do virtually all the hunting for a group, and they usually hunt cooperatively.

Males are freeloaders

Males that are part of a pride seldom hunt, but share in the females’ kills. The conspicuous black mane helps protect a male’s neck during fights with rivals, but makes it difficult for him to creep toward pray unnoticed.  Mortality is much higher in males than in females.

Threats to lions

Africa’s lions are threatened primarily by habitat loss, as human populations expand. They’re also frequently poisoned or trapped by rural dwellers who blame lions for livestock losses.

I was surprised at how few lions I saw

I’ve been to South Africa a couple of times in the last 5 years looking for wildlife.  Although I spent virtually all my time in Kruger National Park and other wildlife reserves, I saw very few lions.  In eight weeks of searching, I had only three lion sightings: one solitary male, two males on a kill together, and one pride of females with their young. One wildlife guide I talked with told me that, in his youth 40 years earlier, he had shot lions every single day – to protect his family’s livestock, he said. This was in the same place where I saw only one lion over a period of 3 weeks.

Link to Jouberts on NPR

The Jouberts were interviewed on March 2 by Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air”. Click here to read NPR’s summary of the interview, or to listen to the entire interview.

A couple of my previous posts about Africa’s big cats:

We were lucky to see lions on a kill

Leopard adventure: male and female clash over prey

Keywords: lion extinction lion conservation Dereck Joubert Beverly Joubert The Last Lions NPR

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