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The Ghosts of Refugees Past

December 23, 2015                                                                       FOREIGN POLICY

SYKAMINIA, Greece — In a scene repeated nearly every day in this small fishing village on the Greek island of Lesbos, a Coast Guard boat had recently pulled into port and unloaded a group of wet and frightened refugees who had just been rescued from the sea. It was 10 p.m., a cold wind was blowing, and the newcomers were shivering. But it wasn’t long before one of the cafés neighboring the port opened its doors so the group could take shelter. Not long after that, several women arrived to quietly distribute dry clothes to the children.

As the refugees made the long uphill walk to a reception center for migrants, they passed an olive press that’s over a century old. Exhausted as they were, it’s unlikely the refugees inquired about the building’s history. But if they had, the locals would have explained that the olive press once housed desperate refugees, much like the present-day newcomers from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The only difference is that the earlier migrants were Greeks — the ancestors of most of the very people assisting today’s refugees.


Syrian Refugees in Greece: “We Don’t Have Peace in Anything”

November 23, 2015                                                                     THE INTERCEPT

I MET SIMA FARAUATE, 27, at the entrance to Kara Tepe refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris killed 130 people and unleashed an anti-immigrant backlash across Europe.
Sima Farauate, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee, stands by an old olive tree at the Kara Tepe transit camp on the outskirts of the city of Mytiline on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 19, 2015.
Photo: Heidi Levine for The Intercept
She and her husband, Amaas, had just survived the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey operated by smugglers that has been the main route for refugees and migrants seeking safe haven from ISIS in Europe. For around $1,000 each, they had been transported to the coast by bus from Izmir, Turkey, kept hidden in an olive grove overnight, then jammed into a rubber dinghy with 45 other refugees. Once their boat reached Lesbos, they walked to a reception center along the coast and then a bus transported them 45 kilometers over the steep terrain of northern Lesbos to the camp near the capital city of Mytilene. “I’m so tired,” Sima said. “So tired.”

I could imagine that she was, and not only because of the boat trip. The young couple was from Aleppo, which has been devastated by the ongoing war in Syria. Sima told me they couldn’t survive there any longer. “It was impossible.” So they walked three days from their home to cross the border into Turkey. “We walk all the time. This is our life now.”


How one Syrian refugee wound up bringing his dying wife with him to Greece

 November 28, 2015                                                                                PRI'S THE WORLD

When the boat arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos, his wife was dead.

Some 100 refugees have died trying to make the treacherous crossing from Turkey to Lesbos, including more than 60 on one tragic night in October, when a trawler sank in high seas. The dangers are well known, but people keep coming. More than 725,000 refugees have arrived in Greece by sea this year alone — 425,000 of them at Lesbos.

An Iraqi man mourns his wife on the beach on Lesbos on Oct. 15, 2015.
Credit: Alison Terry-Evans
 After having spent two months on the island reporting on the refugee crisis, I can remember countless scenes of vulnerable people being rescued. Every single day, dozens of boats are launched and many of them flood, or the engines fail and they drift at sea.

Or they make it to shore, only to smash against the rocks. People end up floating in the water in fake life jackets holding tight to children and infants as body temperatures plummet. It’s a race against death as the Greek Coast Guard, Frontex, local fisherman and a network of NGOs and lifeguard groups and volunteers respond again and again, day and night.

If it weren’t for their heroic efforts, the death toll would be drastically higher than it is. But some situations are so terrible that they transcend even the possibility of rescue ...


The cemeteries on Lesbos are full. But refugee families still need to bury their dead.

Nov. 3, 2015                                                                        PRI's The World

There’s no more room to bury the dead. Sypros Galinos, mayor of the Greek island of Lesbos, announced the main cemetery's area reserved for refugees who have drowned at sea is full. 

Efi Latoudi at the cemetery for refuges in Mytilene, Lesbos. PHOTO BY JODI HILTON

The situation symbolizes the despair this island feels at being at the epicenter of Europe's migration crisis — and having dead bodies washing up on its shores. Fifty-five more bodies sit in the morgue.

Ilias Maravas, a reporter for Greek ERT TV here, was the first to find two dead children on the beach two days after a trawler heaped with migrants sunk in high seas between Lesbos and Turkey last week. Two hundred and forty two people were rescued; 43 are confirmed dead with an unknown number still missing.  Pointing to his computer, Maravas said: “This is full of 10 months of pictures of dead people. I don’t ever want to see this again.”

Maravas told me that locals are deeply disturbed by corpses in the sea. “For us, the ocean gives us strength.  We fish in it, swim.  The sea is our home.  It should bring life, not death.”


On Lesbos, today's refugees are met by the children of refugees from a century ago

 October 21, 2015                                                PRI's The World

Constantina Mesisklis and her friends, women in their 80s and 90s, are a fixture on the bench in Skala Sykaminia, the tiny seaside village on the northern coast of Lesbos where 1000s of refugees have been arriving from the nearby Turkish coast every day for months on end.

Constantina Mesisklis, center.  PHOTO: ALISON TERRY-EVANS
 The population of Skala Sykaminia numbers about 150 and all of them are the children, grandchildren or great grandchildren of a another group of refugees — the Greeks who fled Turkey in 1922-23 after what is known in Greece as “The Asia Minor Catastrophe.”
Thousands escaped in boats as the Turks routed the Greek army and set fire to Smyrna, today’s Izmir. Eventually a population of 1.5 million Greek Orthodox, Greek language speakers would be expelled from Turkey to Greece; likewise, 500,000 Muslims were forcibly resettled from Greece back to Turkey. Today more than half the population of Lesbos descends from the 1922 refugees.

“My mother came here alone when she was a girl in 1922,” Constantina tells me in her soft voice. “Her parents were dead over there.” She learned English in the United States, where she lived for many years before returning to Sykaminia to bury her husband two years ago. “They didn’t have anything. It was very, very hard. There was no food to eat, no work, no clothes, no nothing when she came.”


This beautiful Turkish tourist town is now home to boats stuffed with refugees and migrants headed for Lesbos

October 9, 2015                                                                                    PRI'S THE WORLD

Staring out from the high cliffs above the ancient Greek city of Assos in Turkey, now a beautiful tourist town, your vision merges with the vast blueness of the sky and Aegean Sea until it rests on the melodious green hills of the island of Lesbos in the distance. It’s a grand view that has captivated people for millennia.

Aristotle lived there for a time before leaving for Lesbos, where he and Theophrastus did seminal work classifying flora and fauna.
The ancient Theatre of Assos overlooking the Aegean Sea, with the nearby island of Lesbos on the horizon.
Credit: Vindobona/Wikimedia Commons

Today it’s also an excellent vantage point to observe boats stuffed with refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations leaving from camps run by the Turkish mafia. They are bound for Lesbos, only five miles away at the closest point. On the other side, a ragged group of NGOs, foreign and local volunteers and international media await them with long camera lenses, hugs and, if they’re lucky, some water, pieces of fruit and dry clothing.

The day I arrived in Assos to meet Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, some 50 boats carrying 3,500 refugees would reach Lesbos, adding to the 400,000 who have passed through Greece this year — 100,000 in August alone. Most of the Lesbos-bound boats left from five camps tucked into the pretty olive groves that dot the shoreline around Assos....


'Please, have some tea.' For refugees, civility before danger.

October 2, 2015                                                                  PRI's The World

IZMIR, Turkey  “Please, have some tea. Do you take sugar?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“This is Syrian tea. Please, it is our pleasure.”

 “Thank you.”

The Syrians I meet in the small square outside the Sinbad Restaurant in Izmir, Turkey are all fleeing an escalating war in their country they say has made it impossible for them to stay in their homes.

Sinbad Cafe in Basmane neighborhood in Izmir
Asas, a fashion designer from Damascus in his early 30s, tells me that mortar shells are falling all over the capital, even in formerly “safe” neighborhoods. Recently a bomb fell during his fashion show; the before-and-after photos on his mobile phone show elegant evening gowns, then exploded plaster and hanging wires.

Nour is just 17 and is traveling alone. “If you are walking in the streets suddenly you hear deeewwww,” he says, crouching a little, “a missile or an explosion. There is no life.” His two older brothers have already gone to Europe. His parents are still in Syria and call him constantly on Skype or Whatsapp. “My father’s soul is with me,” he says.


Rough Aegean Seas Don't Deter Refugees

 September 30, 2015                                                                   PRI's The World

IZMIR, Turkey  Reporter Jeanne Carstensen in Turkish town of Izmir tells host Carol Hills about new dangers facing the migrants and refugees who work with smugglers.


Landfall. A selfie. Another refugee celebrates survival.

 September 25, 2015                                                                         PRI's The World

LESBOS, Greece  Today I joined the pack of volunteers and media awaiting the arrival of refugee boats to the Greek island of Lesbos from Turkey — just a few miles away across the Aegean Sea.

My companions from the BBC and I had coffee in the picturesque fishing village of Sykaminia. An old Greek man with a bushy mustache sat on the dock slowly rinsing sand out of a freshly caught squid.
Refugees arrive to Lesbos from Turkey, Sept. 25, 2015

The stretch of coast on Lesbos where the biggest wave of refugees since World War II has been coming ashore is a rugged, mountainous landscape of steep olive groves and oaks dotted with small villages.

It’s easy to feel that here the time machine got jammed back around the beginning of the last century, until you look down the rocky shore and see that it is littered with the carcasses of destroyed inflatable boats and immense piles of hundreds of brightly colored life jackets left behind by refugees.


Migrants and Refugees Continue to Pour Ashore in Greece

 September 23, 2015                            PRI's The World

LESBOS, Greece  Twenty-six overcrowded boatloads of migrants and refugees landed on the Greek island of Lesbos Wednesday. Some 2,500 people made it ashore, after making the dangerous and expensive trip from Turkey. Host Marco Werman speaks with reporter Jeanne Carstensen on Lesbos.


The Ambiguous Colors of Nanotechnology: Kate Nichols’ nanoparticle paints have changed how she sees color

July 2015                                                                                                          Nautilus

Kate Nichols leans her delicate face against the glass of a chemical fume hood in a University of California, Berkeley lab, peering into a beaker filled with a pale yellow liquid—“like a well hydrated person’s pee,” she says, laughing. The yellow brew is a fresh batch of silver nanoparticles. Over the next week, the liquid will turn green, then turquoise, then blue as the particles morph in shape from spheroids to prisms under the influence of time and fluorescent light. Post-docs and grad students elsewhere in the nanotech lab are synthesizing nanoparticles for research on artificial photosynthesis and quantum dot digital displays. But not Nichols. She isn’t a scientist, but an artist, gripped by color.

Read more @Nautilus

(ESSAY) “You are not just an affair”: I fell for the world’s oldest romantic cliché — being human

 July 2015                                                                                                  Salon

When my lover and I arrived at the Pont des Arts in Paris I immediately wanted to hook a lock with our initials on it to the mass of other “love locks” dangling from the railings on both sides of the bridge.
(Credit: JaysonPhotography via Shutterstock)
 I took her hand and whispered my intentions into her ear.  She turned her head slowly toward me, and I saw that she was — really? — rolling her eyes. She looked beautiful in her classic black wool coat, pulled tight around her neck against the October chill.  Her silver hair, with an impeccable French cut, fell dashingly across her face.  I loved that hair.

Now I know that the French had grown weary of the locks on the Pont des Arts.  What began as a romantic gesture by couples in the 2000s had turned into a tourist scourge weighing many tons.  Not only were the locks — quelle horreur — ugly, they were threatening to sink the bridge into the Seine.  In fact, Paris officials recently announced that they are going to cut off the whole lot of them.  Read more @Salon

Robots Can't Dance: Why the singularity is greatly exaggerated

January, 2015                                                                                                          Nautilus

Illustration by James Yang for Nautilus
Can a robot be creative? Advances in cloud robotics—machines connected to supercomputers in the cloud—have given self-driving cars, surgical robots, and other “smart” devices tremendous powers of computation. But can a robot, even one supercharged with artificial intelligence, be creative? Will a mechanical Picasso paint among us?    Read more @ Nautilus

Ingenious: Ken Goldberg -- Creative robots, the Kurzweil fallacy, and what it means to be human

January, 2015                                                                                                       Nautilus

Visit Nautilus to watch video
We are not on the verge of a “singularity,” when intelligent robots will take control. In fact, Ken Goldberg told me in this interview at his lab at UC Berkeley, his work in robotics has made him appreciate the quirks of humanness that can’t be modeled with algorithms. Smart robots and artificial intelligence systems can enhance our creative capacities, but true creativity remains a singularly human trait.  
Read more @ Nautilus

Slam Poet Bob Holman Tracks Endangered Languages in New Film

January, 2015                                                                                                KQEDArts

Bob Holman is a word man. His decades of frenetic activity in the slam poetry, hip-hop and spoken-word scenes once led Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to call him “the postmodern promoter who has done more to bring poetry to cafes and bars than anyone since Ferlinghetti.”

Bob Holman with Rupert Manmurulu in Australia. (Photo: David Grubin)
Now, Holman is pouring his love for words into a movement to save the world’s endangered languages. There are roughly 6,500 languages spoken around the world today; linguists estimate that by the end of the century, that number could be cut in half. That’s right: Some 3,000 languages could soon pass away from this sweet earth.

“Every language contains a singular way of looking at the world,” Holman tells me by email. “The brain may be infinite, but we’ve only been able to invent 6,000 of these ways of looking at things. To lose one of these is a tragedy.”   Read more @ KQEDArts

Job Fair for Bacteria at Modernism Gallery

October 23, 2014                                                                                               KQEDArts                                                                                                                                                                                       
It wasn’t clear that Mark Zuckerberg was going to show up, but Jonathon Keats was hopeful. Tuesday night was the launch of Microbial Associates, the world’s first corporate training academy for microbes.

Photo by Chrissy Hughes. Courtesy of Modernism Gallery, San Francisco."

With Silicon Valley companies struggling to add diversity to their workforce and otherwise stay competitive in the rapidly evolving global marketplace, Keats saw an opening. The industry is hungry for disruptive technologies, so why not train and certify bacteria to join the workforce and bring their skill set to the corporate environment?

After all, “2.3 billion years ago they fundamentally changed the composition of the atmosphere,” Keats, who is the founder and managing director, explained. “Oxygenation. It doesn’t get any more disruptive than that.”

This isn’t the first business that Keats has launched at Modernism Gallery. The experimental philosopher, artist and writer also created a real estate investment company offering properties in extra dimensions and a start-up that tried to genetically engineer god, among other endeavors...

 (more at KQED Arts)

(ESSAY) For Syrian Refugees, Even Jail Is Paradise

December, 2013                                                                         Al Jazeera America

“I know a woman in Izmir who has tried three times to make it to Greece by boat,” a Syrian traveler named Ammar told me.

“What happened?” I asked.
Asylum seekers in Turkey.  Ali Balli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“Three times it sank, ” he replied
We met in the rooftop bar of the Nomade Hotel in Istanbul, enjoying the spectacular view of the domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque. I was in town with my friend Tzeli for a symposium celebrating Semiha Es, Turkey’s first female photojournalist, and we were chatting with Colleen, a woman from Philadelphia who had been traveling the world for almost two years.

 That morning Colleen told me she was heading to Athens the next day, but then she was talking about going to Geneva or the U.S. instead. Her face glowed blue from her laptop screen as she clicked through plane fares on a discount travel site. “I don’t know. Maybe I should go to the States for a bit,” she said, tapping on the keyboard. “It’s so cheap now. My dad is 84. I could see him for Christmas.” Tap, tap. “But Geneva is so great in the winter!” (more)

Dress for Evolutionary Success

April, 2013                                                                                                    Nautilus

Picture one of those ascent-of-man charts that depict a progression of profiles, from an ape walking on all fours to a slumped hominid to a modern human standing erect. What’s missing? The modern human is naked. No accessories!

Illustration by John Hendrix
 We may not find a chapter on fashion in science textbooks but ornamentation and tailoring have played feature roles in our success as a species. On the prehistoric catwalks we creamed the Neanderthal competition on both functionality and style and went on to become the dominant hominid in virtually every climate zone on earth. 

As I discovered through a host of interviews with paleontologists, anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, and fashion historians, clothes don’t just make the man—they make us human. Clothes and body decoration evolved in a suite of human communication tools and behaviors that have shaped the runway of human evolution and culture.

Fashion has been as “crucial to the emergence of the modern human as music and dance, art and humor, and language,” says evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. “It’s a legitimate part of human nature.”

That’s hardly news to the well-dressed man and woman. Still, putting fashion and science in the same sentence can seem a little strange. So, to reassure you that the pride and excitement you feel when you put on an Armani suit or a pair of Manolo Blahniks is emotionally legit, let’s turn back to our evolutionary past. The dawn of clothes reveals that we were born to strut.   (More)

Inside The Secret World of Plant Communication

April, 2013                                                                                                    Modern Farme

Photos by Sarah Illenberger
 Without plants, humans and animals could not survive, so it’s no wonder we long to communicate with them. Many past civilizations worshiped plants and have tried to converse with them through rituals and other means.  Read more @Modern Farmer

How to Grow A Cocktail

March, 2013                                                                                        Modern Farmer

What do you see when you walk into a liquor store? If you’re nature writer Amy Stewart, you see “the world’s most exotic botanical garden, the sort of strange and overgrown conservatory we only encounter in our dreams.” Indeed, without plants we wouldn’t have the martini. Or prosecco. Or single-malt scotch. Almost every element that goes into a great drink—from the fermented grains and grapes, to the herbs and fruits that flavor them, to the celery stalk in your glass—is a denizen of the plant world. Stewart’s latest book, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks, tells the story of over 150 of these intoxicating flora and includes loads of tips for bartenders, gardeners and farmers on the art of alcohol.

 What are some weird plants that can show up in an alcoholic beverage?
You name it. If it’s a fruit or an herb, if it’s edible, someone somewhere has dropped it into some alcohol and made booze out of it. A lot of these plants go back to medieval medicine. Capillaire syrup was originally a medicinal thing made from maidenhair fern that was supposed to treat jaundice. But it became sweet botanical syrup that ended up as a cocktail ingredient. No one makes maidenhair syrup anymore. But you could. And I have.

What’s it used for?
Mostly old punch recipes like Jerry Thomas’ Regent Punch, which is one of those strange drinks that have green tea, Champagne and all kinds of crazy things.  (More)

(ESSAY) Safety Not Guaranteed

November 4, 2012                                                                          Religion Dispatches

Looking at the online flood zone map of our neighborhood, I feel calm.
NYC Flood Zone Evacuation Map
I’m a bit of a map freak and I appreciate how clearly this one presents the information and how easily I can navigate within it. I know, vaguely, that the East Village is vulnerable to flooding from the East River but now I can see the facts. Zooming in, I see the exact boundaries of Zone A—the mandatory evacuation zone. It extends from the river up to the public housing blocks along FDR Drive, to the German Biergarten on Avenue C, up to Sheens on Avenue B, the bodega where you can spend $8 on a carton of milk and toilet paper.

We live just to the west of Avenue B—bright red on the map, along with everything to the east. Mayor Bloomberg has ordered everyone living in the Red zone to evacuate. The storm looks big on the satellite images, really gnarly.  (more)

Today’s Vineyards, Yesterday’s Tall Oaks

 April 21, 2012                                                  New York Times/The Bay Citizen

On a recent sunny day in the Napa Valley, Robin Grossinger cupped his hands around his eyes and surveyed the landscape. He said the scene gave him “a feeling of grandeur.”

Tidal marshlands. Courtesy CA Historical Society
He was not talking about the vistas of hillsides draped in vineyards, with their gnarled vines tinged green with new growth that by fall will be laden with the valley’s renowned cabernet sauvignon and other grapes. Mr. Grossinger, a scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and author of the new Napa Valley Historical Ecology Atlas, had turned his gaze onto another charismatic species: a small line of valley oak trees. 

While today’s visitors — around five million annually — come to drink wine and soak up the beauty of Napa’s viticultural landscape, past visitors came to marvel at the majestic oaks. 

The area where Mr. Grossinger was standing, near Oak Knoll in the southern end of the valley, is where travelers entering from the south first took in the beauty of the oak savannas that defined the valley floor, bursting with wildflowers in the spring. The trees at Oak Knoll supported abundant wildlife and created shade in the heat, among other benefits, prompting the California State Senate in 1858 to declare them “at once an ornament and a blessing.” (more)

Berkeley Group Digs In to Challenge of Making Sense of All That Data

April 7, 2012                                             New York Times/The Bay Citizen

It comes in “torrents” and “floods” and threatens to “engulf” everything that stands in its path.

 No, it is not a tsunami, it is Big Data, the incomprehensibly large amount of raw, often real-time data that keeps piling up faster and faster from scientific research, social media, smartphones — virtually any activity that leaves a digital trace. 

The sheer size of the pile (measured in petabytes, one million gigabytes, or even exabytes, one billion gigabytes) combined with its complexity has threatened to overwhelm just about everybody, including the scientists who specialize in wrangling it. 

“It’s easier to collect data,” said Michael Franklin, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, “and harder to make sense of it.” (more)

Law, Order and a Life in Robes

 March 23, 2012                                                             New York Times/The Bay Citizen

As he had many times before, Judge Vaughn R. Walker — impeccably dressed in a gray suit and muted red tie — took command of the room.

It was not a courtroom, but the Verdi Club, the site of a law-and-order-themed evening of storytelling hosted by San Francisco’s Porchlight storytelling series on Monday night. 

Judge V. Walker takes the stage.  Photo by Adithya Sambamurthy
 Judge Walker, recently retired from Federal District Court, became something of a local celebrity after his 2010 ruling that Proposition 8, the voter-approved California measure that banned same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. He became even more of a lightning rod after it was revealed that he is gay. So expectations ran high when he took the stage under yellow and purple lights and the flash of a disco ball, telling the crowd that he had been told not to expect a typical legal audience. “That, I assume, was a compliment to you,” he said. 

He quipped about how, in the courtroom, he was not used to being accompanied by a piano player, particularly “one that I know when I go on too long is going to start playing.” (more)

A Performance of Relentless Stillness, With Live Score

March 16, 2012                                                The New York Times/The Bay Citizen

Eiko, the female half of Eiko and Koma, the contemporary movement arts duo who have performed together for some 40 years, hurled her small frame onto an oblong pile of canvas and feathers on the floor of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
“Naked, naked!” she said mischievously, gesturing to herself to indicate how she and Koma will appear in “Fragile,” a new four-hour performance with a score performed live onstage by the Kronos Quartet at the arts center through Saturday. 
Photo by Anna Lee Campbell
 The evening was an informal preview of the couple’s two-week Yerba Buena residency, which also includes performances of three iconic early works and a series of workshops and other events.
Just as quickly, Koma darted from standing to lying down on the opposite side of the nestlike pile. Then he jumped up again and ran to the other side of a large backdrop covered in feathers and salt suspended from the ceiling. 

“This is what people do who don’t want to see the naked bodies,” he said with a teasing tone, peeking back at Eiko through one of the many holes in the canvas as if he were embarrassed. 

If anything characterizes Eiko and Koma’s art, it is the slow, even glacial pace of their movements — sometimes so slow they are almost imperceptible, like ice melting. They describe their work, which evokes a deep connection with nature and deals with elemental themes like nakedness, hunger and death, as “infused with relentless stillness that subverts and transcends our everyday notions of time and space.” (More)