July 2008


On Monday nights in Brooklyn, a band of Frenchmen and Americans play Peruvian music.

“I know that sounds a bit absurd,” said Olivier Conan, lead singer of the band, Chicha Libre, whose name is a tribute to the craze for a style of music called Chicha that took root in the Peruvian Amazon in the early 1970s.

“But we take the music very seriously, and we do it justice,” said Mr. Conan, 46, as he sat last Monday with a drink and several band members at a table outside Barbès, a bistro in Park Slope. Later, people flocked to the bistro to hear him play the cuatro, a South American guitar he uses to strum the perky blend of Latin rhythms, surf music and psychedelic pop he first heard three years ago while vacationing in Lima, Peru.

“All the street vendors were playing Chicha on their boomboxes,” said Mr. Conan, fiddling with his cuatro as the sun began to sink behind rows of neatly lined brownstones. “I just fell in love with it.”

Mr. Conan was then in a French band named Bébé Eiffel, and he was determined to change its cultural and ethnic tunes after returning from Peru. He sat down with Vincent Douglas, a longtime friend and member of the band — Mr. Douglas and Mr. Conan own Barbès — to discuss the possibility of putting a Spanish accent on a new act.

Mr. Douglas, an electric guitarist, said he was “immediately blown away” by the recordings that Mr. Conan had brought back from South America.

“Olivier had me listen to this music, and it was just incredible,” said Mr. Douglas, 41, who has been a friend of Mr. Conan’s since they were teenagers growing up in Paris. “It had a real Latin vibe. It was very groove- and dance-oriented, and at the same time it was very rockish and surfy. I told him we should definitely start playing it.”

Chicha, which fuses traditional music from various parts of Peru with musical styles from Colombia and Venezuela, was played and danced to mostly in Lima’s poor suburbs by people who had migrated from the Amazon and the Andes in search of a better way of life.

Mr. Conan said that the band recently released a CD called “Sonido Amazonico” (Sound of the Amazon) and would perform at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on Wednesday.

Dressed in a cowboy hat and a dark blazer he described as “vintage Salvation Army,” he said he “could not imagine anyone else in New York, or anywhere in America, playing Chicha music.”

“If we weren’t playing it here,” he claimed, “you couldn’t hear it anywhere.”

Mr. Conan then got up and opened a cellar door to fetch the instruments, amplifiers and other equipment that belong to the six-man band. The other members are Nicholas Cudahy (bass), Greg Burrows and Timothy Quigley (percussion), and Joshua Camp, who plays an Electrovox, which Mr. Olivier described as an instrument that looks like an accordion but functions as an organ.

“We start our show at 9:30, and we get more artsy types than stockbrokers in here, people from their 20s to their 40s,” Mr. Conan said. “Of course, we get a lot of Peruvians from all around the city, but not many middle- or upper-class Peruvians because Chicha is mostly associated with the ghetto slums of Lima, so some people look down upon it.”

About an hour after sunset, Chicha Libre’s first set was under way. A dozen chairs in the bistro’s back room were quickly filled, and the band began by playing a number laced with enough spaghetti western strains to create the feeling that Charles Bronson, six-gun in hand, was about to walk into the room.

“They are an amazing band,” said Morgan Stoffregen, 29, who makes the short trip from Flatbush to the bistro, at Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue, every Monday to hear Chicha Libre play.

Ms. Stoffregen fell in love with Chicha music during a recent trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where she happened to hear it played in a bar.

“One night I was home about 8:30, searching the Internet for a place where I could hear Chicha,” Ms. Stoffregen said. “I came across these guys, and about an hour later that same night, I was sitting here, listening to them perform.”

Elise Marafioti, a 27-year-old waitress, was busy running drinks to the dimly lighted tables and to a few dozen people dancing along the walls. “Monday nights can get kind of crazy in here,” she said. “Especially when the place gets packed and the floors start shaking.”

By Chicha Libre’s second set, the tiny room was indeed packed, and the floors were shaking, a tribute to a Latin band with nary an ounce of Latin blood coursing through their musical veins.

“Hey, if six Latinos want to start up a French band, I think that would be a great thing,” Mr. Douglas said. “I don’t think music belongs to anyone; in fact, it belongs to everyone.”

 

By VINCENT M. MALLOZZI (NYT)

Lewis Ziska, a lanky, sandy-haired weed ecologist with the Agriculture Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, matches a dry sense of humor with tired eyes. The humor is essential to Ziska’s exploration of what global climate change could do to mankind’s relationship with weeds; there are many days, he confesses, when his goal becomes nothing more than not ending up in a fetal position beneath his battleship gray, government-issue desk. Yet he speaks of weeds with admiration as well as apprehension, and even with hope.

It is easy to share the admiration and apprehension when you consider the site that Ziska planted with weeds in downtown Baltimore in the spring of 2002. Tucked in next to the city’s inner harbor, the site is part of a barren expanse of turf rolled out over a reclaimed industrial landscape. This unfertile scrap seems an unlikely choice for growing anything, but Ziska saw in it, ominously perhaps, a model of where the global habitat as a whole is headed.

“Ingenuity,” Ziska says, “may be the mother of invention, but poverty is definitely the father.” For some time, he had wanted to create in a laboratory setting the elevated temperatures and increased concentrations of atmospheric CO2 predicted for the mid-21st century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international scientific authority on the subject. Carbon dioxide has received a lot of attention as a greenhouse gas, a major cause of global warming. But it is also, along with water, light and nutrients, one of the four essential resources for plant growth. The effect that boosting this gas’s concentration in the atmosphere will have on plants is very poorly understood.

The facilities for testing the effects of CO2 enrichment in Ziska’s lab on the U.S.D.A. research campus in Beltsville, Md., were limited. His best option there was a growth chamber, essentially an airtight, climate-controlled, artificially lighted aluminum box about as spacious as a walk-in closet. Ziska had something more ambitious in mind, but his budget, which has been cut repeatedly by an administration seemingly intent on minimizing attention to global climate change (his lab has been reduced to 3 researchers who study climate change and agriculture, from 10 in 1999), wouldn’t support the construction of special facilities. Then it occurred to Ziska that the complaints made by residents of nearby Baltimore about summer in their city — the exhaust-laden air and the way in which buildings and pavement soak up solar energy to create an abnormally warm “heat island” — could be put to good use. When he checked, he found that in fact the temperatures in Baltimore run 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average than those of the surrounding countryside, and the concentration of CO2 in the local atmosphere (440 to 450 p.p.m., or parts per million by volume) is well above the current global average. This, coincidentally, matched almost exactly what the panel on climate change predicted for the planet as a whole 30 to 50 years in the future in its “B2 scenario,” a middle-of-the-road projection that envisions continuing greenhouse gas increases but also some success in abatement programs.

By comparing three sites — an organic farm in western Maryland, a park in a Baltimore suburb and the one by the inner harbor — Ziska planned to study three circumstances: the present (on the organic farm), the mid-century future as predicted by the climate-change panel (in Baltimore) and something in between (the suburban site). He took soil from the organic farm, which already contained seeds of 35 common weeds, and with it created uniform beds at each of the sites, urban, suburban and rural, so that the growing medium and weed population would be the same throughout. What happened over the next five growing seasons surprised even him.

Not only did the weeds grow much larger in hotter, CO2-enriched plots — a weed called lambs-quarters, or Chenopodium album, grew to an impressive 6 to 8 feet on the farm but to a frightening 10 to 12 feet in the city — but the urban, futuristic weeds also produced more pollen. Even more alarming was the way that the increased heat and CO2 accelerated and perverted the succession of species within the plots. Typically, a cleared area in the Eastern United States, if left to itself, returns to native woodland. This process varies with the site and circumstances, but in its archetypical form fast-growing annual weeds cover the soil first, playing the role of what ecologists classify as “pioneer plants.” These gradually give way to longer-lived perennial weeds, which are in turn replaced by shrubs and trees.

In the natural version of this process, the pioneers and their successors are species indigenous to the area, and the woodland’s restoration takes decades. But what Ziska observed in his urban plots was ecology on amphetamines, a nearly completed succession to trees by the end of five years, with a domination by invasive weed trees of the most troublesome sort: ailanthus, Norway maples and mulberries. Five years after the creation of the plots, the biggest ailanthus in the rural test site measured about five feet tall. The city site boasted a 20-footer. The suburban plot was following the city’s lead, though it lagged a couple of years behind.

As a scientist, Ziska was excited by his experiment’s striking outcome. As someone who has spent his career battling weeds, though, he was frightened by the implications. Weeds already cost U.S. farmers about 12 percent of their harvest, exacting an estimated annual loss of $33 billion. What would be the additional cost in the future, not only to farmers but also to foresters, land managers and gardeners, of beating back supercharged weeds? Still, even as he contemplated this, Ziska says he couldn’t repress a certain admiration. He traces his interest in weeds to an epiphany during his undergraduate years at the University of California at Riverside: noticing a weed springing up through a crack in the Southern California pavement, he was suddenly struck with wonder at any organism that could flourish in such a hot, dry, hostile environment. That may become an essential talent, it occurred to Ziska, given the way our planet is going.

Taking the long view, it becomes apparent that the events in Ziska’s plots were just another twist in the more than 10,000 years of joint history, ours and the weeds’. We have been intimately linked since Neolithic times, for in a fundamental sense weeds are a human creation. “Weed” is a subjective label applied as a matter of personal judgment, a point that becomes obvious when you consider how many “noxious weeds” — plants now marked for destruction by federal, state or county authorities — were deliberately introduced into North America by individuals convinced of their beauty or utility. The ailanthus tree, for example, currently regarded as one of the most troublesome weeds of our urban habitats, was brought from China to eastern North America in the 19th century for use as a fast-growing shade tree and is said to have been introduced into California by Chinese immigrants who valued its medicinal properties.

There are countless definitions of weeds, ranging from the hardheaded one necessarily observed by farmers, that a weed is any plant that interferes with profit, to the aesthetic (a popular gardener’s definition of a weed is “a plant out of place”), to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sanctimonious assertion that a weed is “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” But all agree on the central criterion: to qualify as a weed, the plant in question must be viewed with disfavor by humanity. Simply put, any plant, if we dislike it, becomes an intruder in our landscape and so a weed.

Arguably, then, there was no such thing as a weed until mankind developed the need to discriminate, which came with the development of agriculture in the Neolithic era, around 9,000 B.C. In fact, many of the wild grains like red rice or wild oats that are among our most troublesome agricultural weeds today were valued food sources until we graduated from the hunter-gatherer stage of our existence.

Much has been made of our scientific triumph in breeding modern crop plants from those wild ancestors. The transformation of an east Asian wild grass (red rice) into the crop that provides 20 percent of humanity’s caloric intake is extraordinary. What generally goes unrecognized, though, except among weed scientists, is the extent to which we also made weeds what they are.

Coexistence with mankind has given rise to the sort of tough plants that flourish despite the worst we can do — hoeing, pulling, burning and, more recently, spraying the fields with herbicidal chemicals. Weeds have adapted to every means we used to exterminate them, even turning the treatments to their own advantage. Attacking a Canada thistle (actually of Eurasian origin and a regular entry in “worst weeds of North America” lists) with hoe or plow, for example, may destroy the plant’s aboveground growth but leaves the soil full of severed bits of fleshy root, each of which may sprout a new plant.

A result of this history is that crops and weeds embody diametrically opposed genetic strategies. Over the centuries, we have deliberately bred the genetic diversity out of our crop plants. Creating crop populations composed of clones or near clones was an essential step in achieving higher yields and the sort of uniform growth that makes large-scale, mechanized cultivation and harvesting possible. Because weed populations live as opportunists, however, they must include individuals with the ability to flourish in whatever type of habitat we make available. They also need diversity to cope with the wide range of punishments we inflict. A patch of Canada thistles, if it is to survive when the farmer switches from hoeing to herbicides, must include individuals that develop a resistance to the chemicals over time. Weed populations that lacked the necessary genetic diversity faded from our fields, lawns and waste places; historians of agriculture can cite many such casualties.

The survivors are an astonishingly plastic group of plants. James Bunce, a plant physiologist with an office down the hall from Ziska’s, has been studying the effect on dandelions (that nemesis of the suburban greenskeeper) of atmospheres artificially enriched with CO2. He found in a series of trials that populations of the familiar weed evolve, changing physically to take advantage of this sort of resource enhancement, within the space of one growing season.

“When you change a resource in the environment,” Ziska said recently, sitting in his compact office, “you are going to, in effect, favor the weed over the crop. There is always going to be a weed poised genetically to benefit from almost any change.”

Ziska, together with Bunce, has been testing the effects of changing CO2 concentrations on a range of crop and weed species. Wending his way through a basement full of pumps, filters and boxlike aluminum growth chambers, Ziska showed himself to be a connoisseur of atmospheres. Peering at the instrument panel outside one growth chamber, he noted a CO2 concentration of 310 p.p.m. “That’s a 1957 atmosphere, the year of my birth,” he said. What he and his colleagues have found, he said, is that weeds benefit far more than crop plants from the changes in CO2 and that the implications of this for agriculture and public health are grave.

Tests with common agricultural weeds like Canada thistle and quack grass found them more resistant to herbicides when grown in higher concentrations of CO2, making them harder to control. Ziska hypothesizes that this may be a result of faster growth; the weeds mature more rapidly, leaving behind more quickly the seedling stage during which they are most vulnerable. This promises to be an expensive problem for farmers, who will have to spend more on chemicals and other anti-weed measures to protect their crops. (Herbicides already cost farmers more than $10 billion annually worldwide.)

But enhancing CO2 levels, Ziska has found, not only augments the growth rate of many common weeds, increasing their size and bulk; it also changes their chemical composition. When he grew ragweed plants in an atmosphere with 600 p.p.m. of CO2 (the level projected for the end of this century in that same climate-change panel “B2 scenario”), they produced twice as much pollen as plants grown in an atmosphere with 370 p.p.m. (the ambient level in the year 1998). This is bad news for allergy sufferers, especially since the pollen harvested from the CO2-enriched chamber proved far richer in the protein that causes the allergic reaction. Poison ivy has also demonstrated not only more vigorous growth at higher levels of CO2 but also a more virulent form of urushiol, the oil in its tissue that provokes a rash.

According to Ziska, the steady increase in atmospheric CO2 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution may have already had a major impact on the growth of at least one supremely costly weed. Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), a native of central Asia, is believed to have been introduced into the United States accidentally, as seeds in soil used to ballast ships or as a contaminant in agricultural seed, in the mid-1800s. Since then, its ability to flourish in dry habitats and its prolific seed production (a single plant can bear as many as 5,000 seeds) has helped it to overrun 100 million acres of Western rangeland, an area larger than the state of Wyoming. In doing so, cheatgrass has displaced more nutritious native grasses, reducing the quantity of livestock a given acreage can support. Cheatgrass has also diminished the land’s value to wildlife, which also finds the introduced plant unpalatable.

The spread of cheatgrass has been widely attributed to the degradation of native grasslands by overgrazing — cattle prefer and selectively eat the native grasses — and more especially to its exceptional combustibility. Periodic fires are an integral part of the rangeland ecology, but when the rangeland is still dominated by native grasses, fires occur in some areas at average intervals of every 60 to 110 years. In areas overrun by cheatgrass, however, fire sweeps through every three to five years. While cheatgrass can tolerate such frequent burns, the native flora cannot.

Cheatgrass’s combustibility is inherent in the plant’s pattern of growth. Sprouting in the fall, it resumes growth at winter’s end to mature and set seed in early summer, whereupon the plant dies, leaving a tuft of dry, highly flammable leaves through the following dry season. Ziska and his colleagues discovered, though, that the weed’s flammability seems to have been greatly augmented by the increases in atmospheric CO2 that occurred during the period of cheatgrass’s spread through the West.

The scientists grew the plant at four concentrations of CO2: at 270 p.p.m. (the ambient level at the beginning of the 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution), at 320 p.p.m. (a 1960s level), 370 p.p.m. (a 1990s level) and 420 p.p.m. (the approximate level predicted for 2020 in all the climate-change panel’s estimates). What they found was that an increase of CO2 equivalent to that occurring from 1800 until today raised the total mass of material (the biomass) each cheatgrass plant produced by almost 70 percent. In addition, the composition of the cheatgrass changed as the CO2 level increased, the tissues becoming more carbon-rich so that the plant leaves and stems are less susceptible to decay. In a natural setting, this would mean that the dead material would persist longer, adding yet more fuel for wildfire.

More fuel, with a longer life — Ziska says that the rise in greenhouse gases we have already achieved may have played a decisive role in the spread of a weed that has already transformed the ecology of the Western United States. The situation seems likely to worsen too. The cheatgrass that Ziska grew at the CO2 level equal to that projected for 2020 increased the plant’s biomass by another 18 percent above current levels. Global climate change, it seems, will further stoke the rangeland wildfires.

“There’s no such thing as natural selection,” Ziska confides. He is not, he hastens to explain, a creationist. He is merely pointing out that the original 19th-century view of evolution, the one presented by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, is obsolete. Their model presented evolution as a process taking place in a nature independent of human interference. That is almost never the situation today — even at sea, where less than 4 percent of the oceans remain unaffected by human activity, according to a recent article in the journal Science. This interference with nature has set the stage for the success of a growing category of weeds, one exemplified by cheatgrass: invasive plant species.

These are plants that evolved outside a local or regional ecosystem but were at some point released into it, typically by human action. Some invasives, like cheatgrass, arrived as hitchhikers and stowaways; others, like kudzu, were introduced deliberately. (A Japanese species, kudzu was planted by state and federal agencies to control soil erosion throughout the Southern states in the 1930s and ’40s.) In any case, the invasive plant species share a quality of aggressive, explosive growth in their new homes and the ability to outcompete the native vegetation of forests, grasslands and wetlands — areas that we are accustomed to think of as outside the sphere of human influence.

Popular opinion has treated the invasive plants as botanical illegal aliens. The Environmental Protection Agency has labeled them as the second-greatest threat to the continent’s biodiversity, exceeded in their impact only by outright destruction of habitat. Major resources have been devoted to the spraying and rooting-out of invasive plants in the belief that their removal would enable an ecological revival. Roughly $45 million, for example, is spent every year in the unsuccessful attempt to stop the spread of a single European wetland weed, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).

New research, however, suggests that invasive species, at least in some instances, aren’t so much the causes of environmental degradation as eco-opportunists taking advantage of disturbed habitats. Or, as the biologist Andrew MacDougall of the University of Guelph, Ontario, puts it, the invasives may behave more as “passengers” than as “drivers.” This is the conclusion he reached in a pair of studies, one of an oak savanna in British Columbia and the other of degraded prairie in southwestern Saskatchewan.

MacDougall had not intended to focus on invasive plants when he began studying a Nature Conservancy Canada property on Vancouver Island. An 86 acre remnant of oak-studded grassland, this sanctuary exemplified a type of open savanna habitat that was once common in the area but that was nearly eliminated by agriculture and sprawl. MacDougall’s original interest was in the native flora; this Nature Conservancy sanctuary is a biodiversity hot spot, hosting more than 100 species of plants and animals at risk in British Columbia or nationally.

Despite this land’s protected status, MacDougall found that the native plant community was failing, the rarities becoming rarer. The young ecologist blamed an invasion by several foreign grasses for this decline. Initially, he supposed that simply removing the foreigners would prompt a renaissance of the native grasses and wildflowers.

The actual response was quite different. For three years MacDougall removed the invasive grasses from plots he outlined within the reserve. In some plots, he did this by mowing or burning; in others, he removed the weeds entirely. Yet the native flora didn’t rebound significantly. In some cases, the decline of the native plant species instead accelerated, and the fundamental character of the flora within the plots began to change, with woody plants encroaching on the formerly open, grassy areas.

MacDougall concluded that rather than serving as drivers of change, the foreign grasses were functioning more in the role of passengers, merely filling in as the natives disappeared. In fact, the foreigners seemed to be serving a stabilizing role. By blocking light from reaching the soil, they inhibited the germination of tree and shrub seeds. Keeping the brush at bay in this fashion preserved the open character of the savanna habitat so that the remnants of the original savanna wildflowers, grasses and wildlife could at least survive. In light of these findings, MacDougall says, he came to believe that the primary cause of the native flora’s decline was human intervention. Before European settlement, fire periodically cleansed the soil surface of dead plant material. Suppression of fire since settlement had allowed a thick layer of litter to accumulate, and the foreign grasses cope better with this than do the natives.

The relevance of this discovery to an era of global climate change has become apparent in MacDougall’s subsequent research in the Saskatchewan prairie. These grasslands were infiltrated with crested wheatgrass, a species from the Eurasian steppe. Again, the foreign grass was blamed as the driver in the decline of the native flora. MacDougall, however, says he believes the invader’s success is largely derived from climatic change over the last half-century. Weather records reveal that spring warmth in this semiarid region is coming earlier than it used to, and the season’s rain is more consistent. The wheatgrass, which awakens from winter dormancy earlier than the native grass species, has gained a competitive advantage from this change.

MacDougall says he believes that a North American grass species could be found that could compete successfully in the altered climate and would also (unlike the exotic) interact beneficially with native wildlife. He admits, though, that replanting this prairie would be a big endeavor, that it would require as much effort as the 19th-century pioneers gave to taming the prairie habitat. Whether the will and resources exist for this seems questionable, especially as habitat disturbance spreads around the globe, creating many similar situations.

MacDougall says he is hopeful that the climatic changes projected for this century won’t exceed the tolerance of most native plant species. He admits, though, that the spread of the exotics suggests that they are more genetically diverse and thus better able to cope with environmental change. MacDougall clearly doesn’t like the prospect, but he admits he can imagine a future so generally disturbed that we may well be grateful for what he calls the “positive services” — the aggressive adaptability — of the botanical aliens.

It was a Tuesday in early January, but the temperature in center city Philadelphia had reached 65 degrees, and rosettes of dandelion leaves were starting to sprout flower buds in the neat bed of mulch outside the Sheraton Society Hill hotel. Inside, in a meeting room set up with chairs, screen and PowerPoint projector, the membership of the Northeastern Weed Science Society was equally disturbed. These are, by necessity, conservative people. A mixture of university researchers, county agents and representatives of the herbicide industry, the attendees had the look of farmers or foresters temporarily off their land — clean-cut, tanned, tending toward the wiry. Most looked distinctly uncomfortable in crisp sport jackets and polyester blazers that, you suspected, had spent the 12 months since the last annual meeting in a closet. If the members looked like farmers, that was because it is farmers they serve, and they had clearly absorbed the wary ethic of that profession in which sudden change, whether of weather, markets or government policies, is almost always for the worse.

The day’s news surely confirmed that prejudice. The second day of this year’s annual meeting was devoted to a symposium on weeds and global climate change, and the speakers were outlining a future in which many of the members’ current strategies will be irrelevant or ineffective.

The keynote speaker, Cameron Wake of the University of New Hampshire’s Climate Change Research Center, did little to put the audience at ease. Wake is a charismatic man who has traveled the colder regions of the world — the Canadian arctic, the Greenland ice sheet, Antarctica and the high mountains of Central Asia. On these trips, he collects ice cores, whose analysis enables him to reconstruct histories of past atmospheric and climatic changes. His soul patch, pink shirt and pink tie made him a minority of one in this room. He dealt firmly with an audience member who asserted that the climatic warming is nothing new, that records from imperial Rome indicate that citrus and other warm-weather crops were then far to the north of their current ranges. Wake pointed out that local archaeology can’t change the global data set, which proves that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is at its highest point in more than 650,000 years and that the rate of increase is accelerating.

Subsequent speakers got down to cases. Andrew McDonald, an agricultural scientist at Cornell University, had used the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s high projections for CO2 levels at the middle and end of the century to create an atlas of potential weed migrations in cornfields in the Eastern United States. If these projections prove accurate, Kentucky, by the end of the next one to three decades, should have a climate (and weed flora) resembling that of present-day North Carolina; by century’s end, it will have shifted to a regime more like that of Louisiana. Delaware, over the same period, will be transformed to something first like North Carolina and then Georgia, while Pennsylvania will metamorphose into West Virginia and then North Carolina. Florida will become something unprecedented in this country. Field observations indicate that these transformations are already under way: another speaker pointed out that kudzu, “the weed that ate the South,” has already migrated up to central Illinois and by 2015 could be extending its tendrils into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Even more sobering were the figures that the biologist Brent Helliker of the University of Pennsylvania flashed on the screen. First, he used maps taken from an ecology textbook to show the way the last ice age drove various forest types southward. Then came a map Helliker created, suggesting that the current warming seems most likely to change the ranges to which forest trees are adapted — the areas where the black spruce, for example, grows now, are likely to become better suited to broadleaf trees. He asked the question that was on the lips of every one of his listeners: Can the forest adapt so drastically in a space of just decades? Helliker announced that he had no answer to that question, and his talk was over.

During a break between talks, Lewis Ziska was surprisingly upbeat. With the challenges, he insisted, come opportunities. Kudzu, for instance: Ziska has been seeking financing to study its potential as a source of biofuel. Kudzu roots, as much as 50 percent starch by weight, seem ideal for ethanol production, while the plant’s supercharged vines, which can grow a foot a day, would be an abundant source of alternative energy. This would be win-win: we develop an alternative to fossil fuels and, at the same time, create a financial incentive to root out a particularly troublesome weed.

Developing techniques for managing weeds in a time of global climate change will be essential to the world’s agricultural future, and the U.S.D.A. researchers, though they have been starved of essential financing, lead the world in this field. (There is one exception, Ziska admits; his Web searches have revealed that marijuana growers have an amazingly detailed knowledge of how CO2 enrichment affects their crop. But as Ziska points out, they don’t publish in scientific journals.) Possession of this expertise could be a great economic asset to the United States, both for the protection it could provide to our own harvests and as an intellectual export that is sure to be much in demand in other countries.

Ziska says that he worries about mankind’s ability to feed itself in a fast-changing future. Paradoxically, it is weeds, he says, that can provide solutions. They have helped us deal with lesser crises in the past. When diseases and pests overwhelmed our domesticated food crops, it was to their wild relatives — plants that mankind has been battling for millennia — that plant breeders turned. Because weeds have more diverse genomes, it is easier to find one with the proper genetic resistance to a given threat — and then to create a new hybrid by breeding it with existing crops. An answer to the Irish potato blight of 1845-6 was eventually found among the potato’s wild and weedy relatives; a wild oat found in Israel in the 1960s helped spawn a more robust, disease-resistant strain of domesticated oats.

Weedy ancestors of our food crops, Ziska predicts, will cope far better with coming climatic changes than their domesticated descendants. Coping, after all, is what weeds have always done best. As last year’s climate- change panel report, Climate Change 2007, made clear, we have already set in motion far-reaching and unstoppable changes in regional temperatures and precipitation and in the composition of our atmosphere. No matter what actions we take, these changes will continue for decades. If we are to avoid disaster, experts agree, we will need to be tenacious but flexible, ready to identify and exploit any opportunity in what will be a challenging, even hostile situation. In this new world that we have made, weeds, our old adversaries, could be not only tools but mentors. At which point, if Ralph Waldo Emerson is to be believed, weeds by definition will cease to exist.

By TOM CHRISTOPHER (NYT)
Tom Christopher writes frequently about horticultural and environmental topics.

BEREA, Ohio — Books are not Nadia Konyk’s thing. Her mother, hoping to entice her, brings them home from the library, but Nadia rarely shows an interest.
Instead, like so many other teenagers, Nadia, 15, is addicted to the Internet. She regularly spends at least six hours a day in front of the computer here in this suburb southwest of Cleveland.
A slender, chatty blonde who wears black-framed plastic glasses, Nadia checks her e-mail and peruses myyearbook.com, a social networking site, reading messages or posting updates on her mood. She searches for music videos on YouTube and logs onto Gaia Online, a role-playing site where members fashion alternate identities as cutesy cartoon characters. But she spends most of her time on quizilla.com or fanfiction.net, reading and commenting on stories written by other users and based on books, television shows or movies.

Her mother, Deborah Konyk, would prefer that Nadia, who gets A’s and B’s at school, read books for a change. But at this point, Ms. Konyk said, “I’m just pleased that she reads something anymore.”
Children like Nadia lie at the heart of a passionate debate about just what it means to read in the digital age. The discussion is playing out among educational policy makers and reading experts around the world, and within groups like the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association.
As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.
But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires a teenager like Nadia, who might otherwise spend most of her leisure time watching television, to read and write.
Even accomplished book readers like Zachary Sims, 18, of Old Greenwich, Conn., crave the ability to quickly find different points of view on a subject and converse with others online. Some children with dyslexia or other learning difficulties, like Hunter Gaudet, 16, of Somers, Conn., have found it far more comfortable to search and read online.
At least since the invention of television, critics have warned that electronic media would destroy reading. What is different now, some literacy experts say, is that spending time on the Web, whether it is looking up something on Google or even britneyspears.org, entails some engagement with text.

Setting Expectations
Few who believe in the potential of the Web deny the value of books. But they argue that it is unrealistic to expect all children to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Pride and Prejudice” for fun. And those who prefer staring at a television or mashing buttons on a game console, they say, can still benefit from reading on the Internet. In fact, some literacy experts say that online reading skills will help children fare better when they begin looking for digital-age jobs.

Some Web evangelists say children should be evaluated for their proficiency on the Internet just as they are tested on their print reading comprehension. Starting next year, some countries will participate in new international assessments of digital literacy, but the United States, for now, will not.
Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.
Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”
Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents. Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending instant messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.
Last fall the National Endowment for the Arts issued a sobering report linking flat or declining national reading test scores among teenagers with the slump in the proportion of adolescents who said they read for fun.
According to Department of Education data cited in the report, just over a fifth of 17-year-olds said they read almost every day for fun in 2004, down from nearly a third in 1984. Nineteen percent of 17-year-olds said they never or hardly ever read for fun in 2004, up from 9 percent in 1984. (It was unclear whether they thought of what they did on the Internet as “reading.”)
“Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media,” Dana Gioia, the chairman of the N.E.A., wrote in the report’s introduction, “they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”
Children are clearly spending more time on the Internet. In a study of 2,032 representative 8- to 18-year-olds, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half used the Internet on a typical day in 2004, up from just under a quarter in 1999. The average time these children spent online on a typical day rose to one hour and 41 minutes in 2004, from 46 minutes in 1999.
The question of how to value different kinds of reading is complicated because people read for many reasons. There is the level required of daily life — to follow the instructions in a manual or to analyze a mortgage contract. Then there is a more sophisticated level that opens the doors to elite education and professions. And, of course, people read for entertainment, as well as for intellectual or emotional rewards.
It is perhaps that final purpose that book champions emphasize the most.
“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”
What’s Best for Nadia?
Deborah Konyk always believed it was essential for Nadia and her 8-year-old sister, Yashca, to read books. She regularly read aloud to the girls and took them to library story hours.
“Reading opens up doors to places that you probably will never get to visit in your lifetime, to cultures, to worlds, to people,” Ms. Konyk said.
Ms. Konyk, who took a part-time job at a dollar store chain a year and a half ago, said she did not have much time to read books herself. There are few books in the house. But after Yashca was born, Ms. Konyk spent the baby’s nap time reading the Harry Potter novels to Nadia, and she regularly brought home new titles from the library.
Despite these efforts, Nadia never became a big reader. Instead, she became obsessed with Japanese anime cartoons on television and comics like “Sailor Moon.” Then, when she was in the sixth grade, the family bought its first computer. When a friend introduced Nadia to fanfiction.net, she turned off the television and started reading online.
Now she regularly reads stories that run as long as 45 Web pages. Many of them have elliptical plots and are sprinkled with spelling and grammatical errors. One of her recent favorites was “My absolutely, perfect normal life … ARE YOU CRAZY? NOT!,” a story based on the anime series “Beyblade.”
In one scene the narrator, Aries, hitches a ride with some masked men and one of them pulls a knife on her. “Just then I notice (Like finally) something sharp right in front of me,” Aries writes. “I gladly took it just like that until something terrible happen ….”
Nadia said she preferred reading stories online because “you could add your own character and twist it the way you want it to be.”
“So like in the book somebody could die,” she continued, “but you could make it so that person doesn’t die or make it so like somebody else dies who you don’t like.”
Nadia also writes her own stories. She posted “Dieing Isn’t Always Bad,” about a girl who comes back to life as half cat, half human, on both fanfiction.net and quizilla.com.
Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,” she said.
The simplest argument for why children should read in their leisure time is that it makes them better readers. According to federal statistics, students who say they read for fun once a day score significantly higher on reading tests than those who say they never do.
Reading skills are also valued by employers. A 2006 survey by the Conference Board, which conducts research for business leaders, found that nearly 90 percent of employers rated “reading comprehension” as “very important” for workers with bachelor’s degrees. Department of Education statistics also show that those who score higher on reading tests tend to earn higher incomes.
Critics of reading on the Internet say they see no evidence that increased Web activity improves reading achievement. “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” said Mr. Gioia of the N.E.A. “I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.”
Nicholas Carr sounded a similar note in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the current issue of the Atlantic magazine. Warning that the Web was changing the way he — and others — think, he suggested that the effects of Internet reading extended beyond the falling test scores of adolescence. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” he wrote, confessing that he now found it difficult to read long books.
Literacy specialists are just beginning to investigate how reading on the Internet affects reading skills. A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books. The only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which predicted better grades in English class and higher overall grade point averages.
Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study, said novel reading was similar to what schools demand already. But on the Internet, she said, students are developing new reading skills that are neither taught nor evaluated in school.
One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”
Neurological studies show that learning to read changes the brain’s circuitry. Scientists speculate that reading on the Internet may also affect the brain’s hard wiring in a way that is different from book reading.
“The question is, does it change your brain in some beneficial way?” said Guinevere F. Eden, director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University. “The brain is malleable and adapts to its environment. Whatever the pressures are on us to succeed, our brain will try and deal with it.”
Some scientists worry that the fractured experience typical of the Internet could rob developing readers of crucial skills. “Reading a book, and taking the time to ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing, is more cognitively enriching, without doubt, than the short little bits that you might get if you’re into the 30-second digital mode,” said Ken Pugh, a cognitive neuroscientist at Yale who has studied brain scans of children reading.
But This Is Reading Too
Web proponents believe that strong readers on the Web may eventually surpass those who rely on books. Reading five Web sites, an op-ed article and a blog post or two, experts say, can be more enriching than reading one book.
“It takes a long time to read a 400-page book,” said Mr. Spiro of Michigan State. “In a tenth of the time,” he said, the Internet allows a reader to “cover a lot more of the topic from different points of view.”
Zachary Sims, the Old Greenwich, Conn., teenager, often stays awake until 2 or 3 in the morning reading articles about technology or politics — his current passions — on up to 100 Web sites.
“On the Internet, you can hear from a bunch of people,” said Zachary, who will attend Columbia University this fall. “They may not be pedigreed academics. They may be someone in their shed with a conspiracy theory. But you would weigh that.”
Though he also likes to read books (earlier this year he finished, and loved, “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand), Zachary craves interaction with fellow readers on the Internet. “The Web is more about a conversation,” he said. “Books are more one-way.”
The kinds of skills Zachary has developed — locating information quickly and accurately, corroborating findings on multiple sites — may seem obvious to heavy Web users. But the skills can be cognitively demanding.
Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy. In one study, Donald J. Leu, who researches literacy and technology at the University of Connecticut, asked 48 students to look at a spoof Web site (http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/) about a mythical species known as the “Pacific Northwest tree octopus.” Nearly 90 percent of them missed the joke and deemed the site a reliable source.
Some literacy experts say that reading itself should be redefined. Interpreting videos or pictures, they say, may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem.
“Kids are using sound and images so they have a world of ideas to put together that aren’t necessarily language oriented,” said Donna E. Alvermann, a professor of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia. “Books aren’t out of the picture, but they’re only one way of experiencing information in the world today.”
A Lifelong Struggle
In the case of Hunter Gaudet, the Internet has helped him feel more comfortable with a new kind of reading. A varsity lacrosse player in Somers, Conn., Hunter has struggled most of his life to read. After learning he was dyslexic in the second grade, he was placed in special education classes and a tutor came to his home three hours a week. When he entered high school, he dropped the special education classes, but he still reads books only when forced, he said.
In a book, “they go through a lot of details that aren’t really needed,” Hunter said. “Online just gives you what you need, nothing more or less.”
When researching the 19th-century Chief Justice Roger B. Taney for one class, he typed Taney’s name into Google and scanned the Wikipedia entry and other biographical sites. Instead of reading an entire page, he would type in a search word like “college” to find Taney’s alma mater, assembling his information nugget by nugget.
Experts on reading difficulties suggest that for struggling readers, the Web may be a better way to glean information. “When you read online there are always graphics,” said Sally Shaywitz, the author of “Overcoming Dyslexia” and a Yale professor. “I think it’s just more comfortable and — I hate to say easier — but it more meets the needs of somebody who might not be a fluent reader.”
Karen Gaudet, Hunter’s mother, a regional manager for a retail chain who said she read two or three business books a week, hopes Hunter will eventually discover a love for books. But she is confident that he has the reading skills he needs to succeed.
“Based on where technology is going and the world is going,” she said, “he’s going to be able to leverage it.”
When he was in seventh grade, Hunter was one of 89 students who participated in a study comparing performance on traditional state reading tests with a specially designed Internet reading test. Hunter, who scored in the lowest 10 percent on the traditional test, spent 12 weeks learning how to use the Web for a science class before taking the Internet test. It was composed of three sets of directions asking the students to search for information online, determine which sites were reliable and explain their reasoning.
Hunter scored in the top quartile. In fact, about a third of the students in the study, led by Professor Leu, scored below average on traditional reading tests but did well on the Internet assessment.
The Testing Debate
To date, there have been few large-scale appraisals of Web skills. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, has developed a digital literacy test known as iSkills that requires students to solve informational problems by searching for answers on the Web. About 80 colleges and a handful of high schools have administered the test so far.
But according to Stephen Denis, product manager at ETS, of the more than 20,000 students who have taken the iSkills test since 2006, only 39 percent of four-year college freshmen achieved a score that represented “core functional levels” in Internet literacy.
Now some literacy experts want the federal tests known as the nation’s report card to include a digital reading component. So far, the traditionalists have held sway: The next round, to be administered to fourth and eighth graders in 2009, will test only print reading comprehension.
Mary Crovo of the National Assessment Governing Board, which creates policies for the national tests, said several members of a committee that sets guidelines for the reading tests believed large numbers of low-income and rural students might not have regular Internet access, rendering measurements of their online skills unfair.
Some simply argue that reading on the Internet is not something that needs to be tested — or taught.
“Nobody has taught a single kid to text message,” said Carol Jago of the National Council of Teachers of English and a member of the testing guidelines committee. “Kids are smart. When they want to do something, schools don’t have to get involved.”
Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford who lobbied for an Internet component as chairman of the reading test guidelines committee, disagreed. Students “are going to grow up having to be highly competent on the Internet,” he said. “There’s no reason to make them discover how to be highly competent if we can teach them.”
The United States is diverging from the policies of some other countries. Next year, for the first time, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers reading, math and science tests to a sample of 15-year-old students in more than 50 countries, will add an electronic reading component. The United States, among other countries, will not participate. A spokeswoman for the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, said an additional test would overburden schools.
Even those who are most concerned about the preservation of books acknowledge that children need a range of reading experiences. “Some of it is the informal reading they get in e-mails or on Web sites,” said Gay Ivey, a professor at James Madison University who focuses on adolescent literacy. “I think they need it all.”
Web junkies can occasionally be swept up in a book. After Nadia read Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir “Night” in her freshman English class, Ms. Konyk brought home another Holocaust memoir, “I Have Lived a Thousand Years,” by Livia Bitton-Jackson.
Nadia was riveted by heartbreaking details of life in the concentration camps. “I was trying to imagine this and I was like, I can’t do this,” she said. “It was just so — wow.”
Hoping to keep up the momentum, Ms. Konyk brought home another book, “Silverboy,” a fantasy novel. Nadia made it through one chapter before she got engrossed in the Internet fan fiction again.

 

By MOTOKO RICH (NYT/ July 27, 2008)

On a humid Wednesday in late June, as she waited to be summoned by a grand jury, 16-year-old Teresa Jeffs hitched up her navy blue prairie dress and hoisted herself into the crooked arms of a live oak tree that sits in front of the Schleicher County Courthouse in Eldorado, Tex.
For a few minutes, she was not — as has been speculated about many of the young women of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S. — a possible child bride, or a sexual-abuse victim, or a member of an out-of-touch, polygamous religious sect. She was just a kid in a tree, perched serenely above the heads of all the lawyers, reporters and sheriff’s deputies — a moon-faced girl with an auburn coxcomb of hair and a mischievous grin.

We understand so little about the view from that tree, about what the world known simply as “outside” looks like to someone like Teresa Jeffs, who was among more than 400 minors forcibly removed from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, which belongs to the F.L.D.S., in early April.

Even after the calls that triggered the military-style raid on the ranch were suspected to be a hoax, Texas child-welfare officials persisted in claiming that F.L.D.S. children were endangered by what they deemed to be a pattern of sexual and physical abuse at the ranch.

Those claims have yet to be proved — the Texas Supreme Court ruled that officials had overstepped their authority, and in early June the children were ordered to be returned to their families — but child-welfare and state criminal investigations continue. Investigators have reportedly taken D.N.A. samples from some 600 F.L.D.S. members, including children, presumably in an attempt to establish a biological link between under-age mothers and older men (in Texas, the legal age for marriage is 16 with consent; 17 for unmarried sexual contact when there is an age difference of more than three years). In addition, a handful of the sect’s young women have been subpoenaed by a Texas grand jury.

Only a small number of families have returned to the ranch, according to Willie Jessop, a spokesman for the ranch, who says many of its former residents fear the possibility of more government interference and have opted to try to live quietly elsewhere, while continuing to adhere to F.L.D.S. principles.

Two weeks ago, the photographer Stephanie Sinclair was given rare and intimate access to some of the young women who have found themselves at the center of the often-bilious battle between the state of Texas and the F.L.D.S. What’s interesting is that in a case that is, at heart, about doctrinaire male authority, and supposed abuse committed by men, it’s the women of the F.L.D.S. who have largely had to assume a public mantle these past months, making court appearances, trying to defend both their faith and their lifestyle in the face of deep skepticism.

Meanwhile, the most visible interpreters of F.L.D.S. culture have been two highly critical former members of the sect, Elissa Wall and Carolyn Jessop. (It would be an understatement to say that patriarchal plural marriages spawn vast and complicated family trees: Jessop and Jeffs are common F.L.D.S. surnames.) Both women claim to have escaped abusive, arranged marriages and have since written best-selling memoirs detailing a world in which women are forced into unconditional obedience and rapid-fire childbearing as a ticket to eternal salvation.

We may never know much about the individual circumstances of the young women in these pages or, most important, whether the relationships that carried some of them into motherhood were forced upon them. The women Sinclair met offered no information about the nature of their marriages or who the fathers of their children are.

For at least some F.L.D.S. mothers, these are uneasy times. It would stand to reason that simply by giving their ages and the ages of their children to a grand jury, coupled with court-ordered paternity tests, some of these mothers may — willingly or not — contribute to the indictments of their children’s fathers. (Because plural marriages are often considered “spiritual unions” and not legally recognized, the usual spousal protections do not apply.) Should they refuse to testify, the women risk being held in contempt of court.

Sinclair found Teresa Jeffs living with her mother and other members of her extended family in a sprawling, stately ranch house in the town of New Braunfels, 30 miles northeast of San Antonio. (Teresa’s sister Lenora was visiting that day.) Teresa is a daughter of Warren S. Jeffs, the now-notorious leader of the F.L.D.S., convicted last year on felony charges as an accomplice to rape for his role in coercing the marriage of Elissa Wall, who was then 14, to her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs is now serving a 10-year-to-life sentence while awaiting trial on other sex charges in Arizona.

Despite a grand jury’s apparent interest in Teresa Jeffs, she has insisted that she is neither married nor has children, though in June her court-appointed lawyer obtained a special order barring any contact between Teresa and a 34-year-old F.L.D.S. man, Raymond Jessop. His relationship to Teresa was not specified at the time. (Teresa has engaged in a public dispute with her attorney, claiming that her interests were not being represented.)

In a rented four-bedroom home on a cul-de-sac in a San Antonio subdivision, Sinclair also visited the household of Sally Jeffs, the mother of 15 children, including LeAnn Jeffs, 17; Pamela Jessop, 18; and Janet Jeffs, 19, who, along with their own young children, were removed from the ranch in the raid. Pamela and Janet, as well as nearly two dozen other mothers, were originally misclassified as minors by the state (under age 18). Sinclair also spent time with 19-year-old Veda Keate in a town house in Converse, Tex. Keate was still fuming about a recent visit from a nurse and two deputies from the Texas attorney general’s office, who came to collect DNA from her and her 2-year-old daughter. With the future uncertain, the women featured here may be keeping their faith and continuing to live in large family groups, but they have, for better or worse, also had to start a new relationship with the “outside” — dealing with investigators and judges, making trips to Wal-Mart for groceries and at least contemplating the sight of their neighbors over the backyard fence.

By SARA CORBETT (NYT/ July 27, 2008)

NEAR THE WARM-UP POOL AT THE Missouri Grand Prix swim meet, in Columbia, a crop of Olympic hopefuls lolled around in practice suits and towels on a Saturday morning in February. Fully clothed among them stood some relics of Olympics past: Scott Goldblatt, who won a gold medal in the 2004 Games, wore an aqua sport coat and a striped tie and was doing on-air commentary for Swimnetwork.com; Mel Stewart, who won two golds and a bronze in 1992, wore the same goofy get-up, working as Goldblatt’s sidekick.

Meanwhile, Dara Torres, who won the first of her nine Olympic medals in 1984, a year before Michael Phelps was born, stripped off her baggy T-shirt and sweat pants, revealing a breathtaking body in a magenta Speedo. She pulled on a cap marked with her initials and prepared to swim. Torres is now 41 and the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, Tessa Grace. She broke her first of three world records in 1982, at 14, and she has retired from swimming and come back three times, her latest effort built on an obsessive attention to her aging body.

Torres’s retinue includes a head coach, a sprint coach, a strength coach, two stretchers, two masseuses, a chiropractor and a nanny, at the cost of at least $100,000 per year. At the Olympic trials, this week, in Omaha, Neb., she’s expected to swim fast enough to make her fifth Olympic team. If she does, she’ll be the first American swimmer to compete in five Olympics (despite sitting out 1996 and 2004). She’ll also be oldest female swimmer in the history of the Olympic games.

Stewart walked over to give Torres a hug, but he stopped himself short. “I don’t want to mess anything up,” he said, laughing, patting the air around her torso.

Last November in Germany, Torres clocked 23.82 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle short course, breaking the American record and making her one of only five women to swim the event in less than 24 seconds. The day after she got home to South Florida, she had a bone spur shaved out of her shoulder. In early January, she had another operation, to deal with a torn meniscus in her knee. Now just five weeks after the latest procedure, Torres looked great. She flashed her wide-open smile at Stewart and dove in the pool. Stewart retreated to Goldblatt and shrugged. “Hey, we’d all be in there if we could be winning,” he said.

As Torres swam, her nearly six-foot frame stretching out across the water, her head coach, Michael Lohberg, checked her hip rotation and distance per stroke, while Torres’s two stretchers, who moved from Connecticut to Florida to aid in her training, looked for small asymmetries and tensions in her body. Torres treats her body the way a motorhead treats his car: obsessively tuning it up, sparing no expense.

If you study Torres’s face and neck, you can see some faint signs of her 40-plus years. But barring the 13 small surgical incisions on her knees, elbows, shoulders, hands and fingers, her physique looks nearly flawless. Rowdy Gaines, who in 1996 was the oldest swimmer (at 35) to qualify for the American Olympic swimming trials, recently described Torres to me as having “the perfect swimmer’s body; really, it’s the picture they’d draw in the dictionary.” Her posture is gangly, loose and cocky, like a teenage boy’s. Her proportions more closely resemble the long inverted triangle of Phelps — broad shoulders, long torso, slim hips, long arms — than the more tightly muscled curves of two of the biggest names in American women’s swimming, Natalie Coughlin and Katie Hoff.

Torres is known for being both competitive and compulsive. Each year, on her mother’s birthday, she tries to beat her siblings to be the first to call. In February, when a group of swimmers appeared on “The Today Show” to promote the new Speedo LZR suit, a Speedo rep offered $100 to the first athlete to say http://www.speedo.com; guess who won the money? Torres’s partner, David Hoffman, a reproductive endocrinologist, who is Tessa’s father, describes Torres’s personality as “not type A. She’s type A + +.” As if to explain, one evening, over dinner with Torres, her mother and me, Hoffman mentioned how challenging it can be to do any kind of physical exercise with Torres. “When we go on bike rides, she’s gone,” Hoffman said.

“That’s not true!” Torres objected. “I wait for you!”

Hoffman raised his eyebrows, resting his case.

After her swim, Torres returned to her hotel to eat lunch, nap and tear two LZR swimsuits worth $1,000 — Speedo failed to send Torres’s size, 27 long, and suggested she squeeze into 26 regular. Then she headed back to the aquatic center in the late afternoon. Gone was the morning’s big smile. Torres was now 149 pounds of focus. Her body kept warm in a knit cap and Ugg boots, she lay on a yoga mat in the gymnasium, readying herself for the preliminaries of the 50-meter freestyle. Most swimmers prep for races by pinwheeling their arms and trying to relax. For Torres, the chore is far more elaborate, as her two stretchers work in tandem to contort and flex her body, in a 20-minute preswim version of the two-hour sequence they do three times a week at her home.

Swimmers refer to the 50-meter freestyle as “the splash and dash.” You dive, hit the water, go all out for about 20 seconds and then reach for the wall. In the preliminaries, Torres streaked down the pool in 24.89 seconds, placing second behind the 22-year-old Kara Lynn Joyce. She was pleased with her performance.

The next morning, back at the aquatic center for the finals, Torres appeared more interior. As her stretchers made last-minute adjustments — during competitions they stretch her five times a day — she stared at the ceiling, listening to her iPod. Up on the blocks, Torres looked taller and fitter than the seven other women, who were between 12 and 20 years her junior. Torres dried her block with a towel, bent down to start and this time touched the wall in 24.85 seconds, just ahead of Natalie Coughlin and again behind Joyce.

Within minutes, the three women stood on a podium. A college kid hung a silver medal around Torres’s neck.

“Can I see it?” a high-school swimmer asked Torres after she stepped down.

Torres does not relish coming in second. “Sure,” she said. “You can have it.”

TORRES LOVES TO WIN, but not as much as she hates to lose. Growing up in Beverly Hills, the fifth of six children and the older of two girls, Torres started following her brothers to swim practice at the local Y.M.C.A. at age 7 and later joined the Culver City swim team. As a kid, Torres didn’t have much of a work ethic, but she did do whatever it took to come in first. Torres’s mother, Marylu Kauder, a former model, told me that one of her earliest memories of her daughter swimming was watching Torres during practice swim halfway across the pool and then stop and turn around so she could beat her teammates back to the wall. Torres lived a privileged life — her childhood home had 10 bathrooms. Still, when she broke the world record in the 50-meter freestyle, at 14, the achievement didn’t seem to impress or surprise anyone much in the Torres household. As Torres recalls, her brothers said, “Congratulations, whatever.” Torres’s own response wasn’t far more pronounced: “Someone told me I was the fastest in the world, and I thought, O.K., that’s neat. But those things really don’t stay with me.”

During her junior year in high school, Torres moved down to Mission Viejo, Calif., to train for the 1984 Olympics with Mark Schubert, who was coaching one of the best teams in the country and who is now the head coach of the U.S.A. Swimming National Team. “There are some athletes who love to train but are afraid to race,” Schubert explained to me. “In high school Dara was the opposite. I wouldn’t say she loved to train. But when it was swim-meet time, that’s when she’d really shine.” Despite this, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles did not go as planned for Torres. At one point, she recalls, she peeked out to the pool from the athletes’ tent because she wanted to see her friend Rowdy Gaines swim. “I remember lifting up the bottom and seeing 17,000 people and I just freaked out. I got hot, I had to go to the nurse’s station, they were putting ice packs on me.” Torres swam so poorly in the preliminaries of the 4X100-meter freestyle relay (the 50-meter freestyle did not become an Olympic event until 1988) that the coaches even considered whether they could substitute a veteran for Torres in the finals that evening. But that afternoon a team captain took Torres back to the dorm to watch soap operas and managed to calm her down. In the finals, Torres swam her leg in 55.92 seconds, a personal best, and the team won a gold medal. Still, Torres describes those Olympics as “just scary.”

At the University of Florida, which Torres started attending in 1985, practice became a much more prominent and difficult part of her life. The coaches routinely weighed all the swimmers, and if a swimmer didn’t make weight, he or she had to swim extra morning workouts. At Florida, Torres earned 28 N.C.A.A. all-American swimming awards, the maximum number possible during a college career, but she also became bulimic, forcing herself to throw up to make weight. In the summer of 1988, between her junior and senior years of college, Torres was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100-meter freestyle. But as she puts it, she “just couldn’t get it together” in Seoul at the 1988 Olympics, Torres placed seventh in the 100-meter freestyle; again she won medals only in relays, a silver and a bronze. Near the end of the games, Torres overheard the East German swimmer Kristin Otto, who won gold medals in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, tell a reporter, “I thought I’d have more competition out of Dara Torres.” “That was a knife in my back and my heart,” Torres told me.

Once her college career ended, Torres decided to retire. But before long she felt the urge to compete again and was elected an Olympic team captain for the 1992 games in Barcelona. With her bulimia in check, she won a gold in a freestyle relay, yet it was her only event. “I would say 1992 was less than stellar by her standards,” Schubert told me, adding sympathetically, “I don’t ever remember her being good enough for her.” Torres had no individual medals to her name, and her growing collection of relay medals presented a complicated prize. She kept them under her bed in her apartment in New York, where, she told me, they turned black with tarnish.

After 1992, Torres lived what appeared to be a glamorous life. She became the first athlete model in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, married and divorced Jeff Gowen, a sports producer, kept fit running and cycling in Central Park and playing basketball at the Reebok gym. But in the spring of 1999, despite not having been in a pool, except to cool down, in seven years, Torres decided she wanted to compete in the 2000 games and moved to California to train. After only five months, Torres’s time in the 50-meter freestyle was 0.3 seconds faster than the world record she set in that event more than 15 years earlier. In Sydney in 2000, Torres, then 33, won three individual Olympic medals — bronzes in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly. She won two gold medals in relays as well. Though she instantly missed the intensity of training for the Olympics — she told me she cried on the way to the required urine test after her last race, sad that it was over and unsure what to do with her life — she came home and again retired. “I felt like I really didn’t have anything else to prove to myself,” she told me. “Plus, I thought 33 was really old. And I was tired.”

Over the next five years, Torres married and divorced again, this time an Israeli surgeon named Itzhak Shasha, and was inducted in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. (Torres’s father, Edward Torres, a real-estate developer, was Jewish, and she converted before marrying Shasha.) She also became the first woman to win the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach car race; when asked to explain why she entered the event, she replied, “I’m so freaking competitive it’s unbelievable.” Then, in the fall of 2005, after struggling for years to have a baby, Torres finally became pregnant with Tessa. At the time, she began swimming again for exercise, because, she says, she had terrible morning sickness and she’d “rather throw up in the pool gutter than next to the StairMaster.” But predictably, Torres soon found herself racing “whoever the middle-aged guy happened to be in the next lane,” even when she was noticeably pregnant. Three and a half months postpartum, she raced at the Masters World Championships. Fifteen minutes after nursing Tessa in the bathroom, she swam the first leg of the 50-meter freestyle relay in 25.98 seconds — fast enough to qualify for this week’s Olympic trials.

A WEEK AFTER THE MISSOURI GRAND PRIX, in the muggy South Florida haze, Torres rolled up to the Coral Springs Swim Club at 7:45 a.m. for an 8:00 practice, because, as she explained in a text message: “. . . hate getting there last! You’d think I would have grown out of that, but I still hate anything to do with being last!!”

As a swimmer of a certain age, Torres takes much longer to recover between workouts. In college she swam 10 practices a week, for a total of about 65,000 meters. Now she swims five, totaling around 25,000 meters. In the water, she does the same workouts as the other sprinters on her team — timed sets, kicking and drills — and she dispatches each with her signature flawless technique and the happy-to-be-there enthusiasm of a woman who was supposed to have hung up her Speedo many years ago. “Isn’t he nice to look at?” Torres whispered to me, cocking her head toward her training partner, the 6-foot-4, well-muscled, 28-year-old Bulgarian Ray Antonov. At the end of practice they kissed each other four times on the cheek. “It’s a Bulgarian thing,” Torres said, laughing.

Torres’s innovations for keeping her body in top shape as she advances deeper into middle age are almost entirely out of the pool. In Florida, after her two-hour water workout, Torres changed into a black workout top and shorts and met her strength coach, Andy O’Brien, in the gym. Over the past year and a half, O’Brien, who is also the strength coach of the Florida Panthers hockey team, has switched Torres’s focus away from heavy, static weightlifting and geared her training toward balanced, dynamic exercises that stimulate her central nervous system. “The idea is not to isolate muscle groups but to get muscles contracting together in the right sequences,” O’Brien explains. Weight training, he notes, grew out of bodybuilding, and that low-rep high-weight tradition is ill suited for a sprinter since a body comprised of big muscles that have been trained to produce force only individually wastes considerable energy trying to move. O’Brien says speed derives from highly coordinated movements and fluid timing. Under his tutelage Torres is 12 pounds lighter, stronger and more cut than she was in 2000. Torres told me that it took her head coach, Lohberg, a little while to embrace O’Brien’s program, but she says, “I’m swimming really fast now, so he can’t complain.”

Torres does her weight training for 60 to 90 minutes, four times a week. On this day, O’Brien coached Torres through a series of exercises that she did while lying on a large exercise ball — lifting weights, doing crunches with weights behind her head. She also performed cross-body pulls with another large ball in her arms. Throughout, O’Brien kept his eyes on Torres’s shoulders and upper back (and several of the young men on the team kept their eyes on O’Brien, unable to afford his services themselves but eager to see what they could learn). Nearly everyone in Torres’s orbit is in awe of her body — its beauty, its strength, its form. “Look at the way her scapula is traveling!” O’Brien enthused, noting the place where she just had an operation. “Dara repairs 10 times faster than most athletes. Considering her age and the length of time she’s been training, it’s pretty amazing.”

After grabbing a steak salad for lunch, Torres drove home (fast) to be stretched. Torres puts as much energy — and money — into her workout recovery as she does into her training. Nearly everybody I spoke to for this article struggled to find a way to say gracefully that Torres’s considerable financial resources — sponsorships from Toyota and Speedo; money she has earned from modeling, TV work and motivational speaking; plus a private sponsor for training expenses — are helping her gain speed. Torres books a massage three times a week and visits, as she needs to, a chiropractor, who works his bald head to a frothy sweat as he tries to stick his hand under her shoulder blade. This afternoon, however, she was getting her two-hour stretch. BlackBerry in hand, pink flower bolster from Tessa’s bed under her legs, Torres lay on her kitchen floor gossiping with her stretchers, as they used their bodies to guide her limbs into precise angles and knead knots and sometimes small pieces of scar tissue out of her muscles.

“Dara and I haven’t seen each other in like 10 hours, so we have to catch up,” Anne Tierney, one of the stretchers, explained as she sat on a chair near Torres’s head. Her partner, Steve Sierra, sat on a chair near Torres’s side, and the two proceeded to “mash,” or massage Torres’s shoulders and legs with their feet — sometimes standing on her body — so their hands wouldn’t tire and they could apply more force. After 45 minutes, they began Torres’s resistance-stretching sequence, a series of maneuvers that looks like a cross between a yoga class, a massage and a Cirque du Soleil performance. The concept behind resistance stretching is that muscles can gain more flexibility if they’re contracted and stretched at the same time. At one point Torres rolled onto her stomach, tucking one leg underneath her chest (in what yogis call pigeon pose). Then Tierney leaned her torso against Torres’s slightly bent back leg, pushing it toward Torres’s glutes, as Torres worked to overcome Tierney’s force and straighten out that leg. Later, Torres moved up onto a massage table and Tierney and Sierra worked on her tensor fascia latae, a muscle that starts on the outside of hip and extends down the leg. Sierra used his hands and shoulders to rotate Torres’s thigh externally; Tierney stood at the foot of the table, pulling outward on Torres’s calf near the ankle.

Torres calls resistance stretching her “secret weapon.” Bob Cooley, who invented the discipline, describes it in less-modest terms. According to Cooley, over a two-week period in 1999, his flexibility system turned Torres “from being an alternate on the relay team to the fastest swimmer in America.” The secret to Torres’s speed, Cooley says, is that his technique not only makes her muscles more flexible but also increases their ability to shorten more completely, and when muscles shorten more completely, they produce greater power and speed. “What do race-car drivers do when they want to go faster?” Cooley asks. “They don’t spend more hours driving around the track. They increase the biomechanics of the car. And that’s what resistance flexibility is doing for Dara — increasing her biomechanics.”

Moments from the end of Torres’s workday — her swim workout, her gym workout and her two-hour stretching session nearly complete — Tessa ran into the kitchen, shouting, “Mama!” The toddler clearly takes after her mom: even at age 2, she’s working on driving her plastic car between the Mini Cooper and the Lexus S.U.V. in the garage, while standing up. Tessa distracted herself in the living room full of toys while Sierra finished with Torres, first working his fingers under her rib cage, a painful technique that, unexpectedly, helps with shoulder rotation, and then pressing very firmly with the heels of his hands on Torres’s solar plexus, as if doing CPR. None of this is comfortable — I had the distinct pleasure of being stretched by Tierney and Sierra myself — but Torres has a very high threshold for pain and the willingness to endure it.

“O.K., Tessie!” Torres finally yelled, standing up from the table and sliding on her flip-flops. “Outside? Race ya!”

UPON HEARING THAT TORRES is likely to make the Olympic team at age 41, many people have the same question: How is this possible? Kinesiologists counter with a different query: Why are you so surprised? “Dara is extremely impressive, but she’s not as unique as people think,” says Michael Joyner, a competitive athlete and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic who writes scholarly papers about aging and sports. “Ted Williams hit .388 when he was 39. Jack Foster did very well in the Olympic marathon when he was 40. Karl Malone earned a triple-double in an N.B.A. game at 40. Jeannie Longo won a French time-trial championship in cycling at age 47.” Torres’s events — short swims — are also well suited to competitors of advanced age. Compared to, say, running, swimming is more technique-intensive and produces fewer injuries. Sprints are also kinder to older athletes, in that strength falls off more gradually than aerobic power. In April, at 37, Mark Foster, a freestyle sprinter in England, came out of retirement and earned a spot, for the fifth time, on the British Olympic swim team. “For those of us who pay attention to this stuff,” Joyner said, “Dara’s performance is unusual but not totally unexpected.”

So why do we assume a middle-aged swimmer must be all washed up? Because for nonelite athletes, sporting achievements fall off precipitously with age. Body composition changes toward more fat and less muscle. Strength and aerobic capacity decrease as well. But a primary reason that athletic performance degrades in adulthood is changes in priorities. People tend to devote more time and energy to jobs and families than to sports. Even committed athletes downgrade their workout goals from achieving personal bests to staying in shape. Academics refer to this reduction in physical activity as hypokinesis. The phenomenon is not limited to humans. A 1985 study showed that rats with unlimited access to running wheels exercised less as they aged. “But look at people who maintain activity levels,” says Joel Stager, a professor of kinesiology at Indiana University. “It’s a different story! A lot of what we assume is aging is just progressive hypokinesis. How many people at Dara’s age have maintained their training consistently? I’m going to say there are very, very few.”

Even childbirth needn’t be a sports-career killer. In 1972, in The Journal of the American Medical Association, E. Zaharieva published a study of 13 women who were pregnant and then competed in the 1964 Olympic Games. Most resumed serious training between three and six months after giving birth. All said, Zaharieva wrote, “they became stronger, had greater stamina and were more balanced in every way after having a child.” Last September, Lindsay Davenport was back on the pro tennis tour and winning just three months after giving birth, while in November, Paula Radcliffe won the New York City Marathon less than 10 months after having a baby.

So how long can peak athletic performance last? Hirofumi Tanaka, the director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, found that both elite and nonelite runners and swimmers could maintain personal bests until age 35, after which performance declined in a gradual, linear fashion until about age 50 to 60 for runners and 70 for swimmers. Deterioration was rapid from there. Tanaka also found that swimmers experienced more modest declines than runners and that swim sprinters, like Torres, experienced the smallest declines of all. At Yale University, Ray Fair, a runner and an economist, crunched statistics on aging and peak athletic performance and created what he calls the Fair Model. The model provides a table of coefficients that enable an athlete to take a personal-best time and compute how long he or she should expect to take to complete that same event at a specific point later in life (assuming he or she has continued to train at the same level). According to the Fair Model, a woman who swam a personal best 24.63 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle at or before age 35 should expect to clock 25.37 seconds at age 41. “I am struck by how small the deterioration rates are,” Fair wrote in a paper titled “How Fast Do Old Men Slow Down?” “It may be that societies have been too pessimistic about losses from aging for individuals who stay healthy and fit.”

Historically, the economics of swimming have also contributed to the preponderance of young champions. Little sponsorship money existed for swimmers until about 10 years ago, which tended to mean that once a swimmer graduated from college, the gig was up — it was time to get a job. But now Speedo and TYR, among other companies in the swimming business, make it possible for elite American swimmers to train full time and continue to be competitive well into their 20s and 30s. This can’t fully counteract “black-line fatigue” — burnout from spending too many hours staring at the bottom of a pool; Phelps insists he’s retiring at age 30 — but the money is pulling elite swimmers’ ages up. Economists who study sports, like Raymond Sauer at Clemson University, note that if athletes are economically motivated enough — if, says Sauer, they have “low wealth and poor income-earning alternatives”— they can stay in sports until a quite advanced age. Stager, at Indiana University, notes that the average age of competitors at national swimming championships increased from 16 in the 1960s to 20 in 2004.

Despite evidence that older athletes can remain competitive longer than many imagine, Torres’s achievements have provoked consistent rumors that she must be doping. These began at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and have been so persistent in Torres’s latest comeback that last September Torres flew to Colorado Springs, Colo., to meet with Travis T. Tygart, C.E.O. of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Tygart acknowledges that since the high-profile steroid scandals involving Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, the onus has fallen on athletes to prove that they’re clean, and that that’s nearly impossible to do. “Can U.S.A.D.A. give Dara or some other athlete the stamp of cleanliness?” Tygart asks. “No, the science isn’t there yet.” Every athlete who is training for the Olympics is subject to testing at any time, in or out of competition. But Tygart was able to offer Torres the chance to volunteer for a pilot program that tests more broadly blood and urine for signs of doping and presumably will catch a much higher percentage of dirty athletes. Torres said yes. (Jones, among others, passed less-sophisticated U.S.A.D.A. tests while using performance-enhancing drugs.) Tygart has not yet released any data on Torres’s testing. But he says the fact she volunteered is significant. “I think a dirty athlete would be crazy to volunteer for this program,” he told me. He was also heartened that Torres did not ask how the pilot’s protocols worked or what drugs they would be looking for.

EVEN TORRES KNOWS that if she manages to earn one of the two spots available on the Olympic team for the 50-meter freestyle, or one of the six available on the 100-meter freestyle (which includes a relay team), this will be her last trip to the Games. Mark Schubert, the national team’s coach in 1984, told me he’s sure Torres will hold master’s swimming records in freestyle sprints at age 50 and 60 and 70. But — let’s face it — compared with the Olympics, even the Masters World Championship is a glorified losers’ round, and holding a master’s world record is hardly an exciting achievement for an athlete who hit the world stage just as she entered high school and who has nine Olympic medals to her name. Driving home one night from a sushi dinner, Torres’s partner, David Hoffman, admitted that he’ll be relieved when Torres emerges from her Olympic training tunnel. “We don’t spend as much time together,” he told me as he idled his car outside their home. “We can’t go on a vacation.” Torres had driven home separately with Tessa. Hoffman watched the swimmer standing in their driveway at dusk, her mind clearly turned toward getting Tessa to bed, so that she could get nine hours of sleep herself. “I can’t wait until this is over,” Hoffman sighed. “It’ll have been two years.”

Still, the next morning Torres rolled back up to the pool, chipper and early as usual. “Hey, Dara,” one of her teammates called, “I heard you were going up for ‘Dancing With the Stars’?”

“I can’t dance,” Torres laughed, dipping her goggles in the pool. “No way if I’m going to be the first one off!”

And with that, Torres grabbed her workout sheet, stuck it to the side of the pool and got down to business. The mood at practice was calm, and as Torres warmed up, her lean frame stretched out among the 16 other spectacular bodies, it was easy to forget that before last year nobody believed that a 41-year-old mother of a toddler, coming off a six-year hiatus, could swim this fast.

According to her coach, Michael Lohberg, Torres should feel less pressure than his other, younger swimmers. “What’s the worst thing that can happen to her?” he asks. “She goes home to her daughter and her partner. Her whole sense of self-worth doesn’t come down to tenths and hundredths of seconds in a pool.” But Torres doesn’t necessarily agree with that opinion. She takes seriously her new role: hero of the middle-aged. About an hour into the morning’s workout, all the swimmers gathered in the center of the pool for a much-loathed drill, vertical kicking. The task at hand was to hoist one’s torso out of the water, using only a flutter or dolphin kick, for 40 seconds, 12 times, with 35-second breaks between each rep. For the last 10 seconds of each vertical kick, the coach yelled, “Streamline,” meaning the swimmers, while still kicking, had to extend their arms straight overhead, one hand on top of the other.

At first Torres led good-natured griping among the swimmers. But after five kicks, the sets were done in silence, all of the athletes too exhausted and miserable to complain. The coach even stopped yelling, as his swimmers’ eyes were on the clock; everyone knew when to pop up and when to come back down. Yet each time, Torres rose to her vertical kick a second before everybody else, and there she was, rising out of the water, for a few moments longer at the end.

By ELIZABETH WEIL (NYT)

Chanel commissioned the structure to house works by about 15 contemporary artists. Each asked to create a work that was at least in part inspired by Chanel’s classic quilted-style handbag. Artists recruited for the project include Sophie Calle of France, Sylvie Fleury of Switzerland, Subodh Gupta of India and the Russian collective Blue Noses.

Photo: Toshio Kaneko

The challenge, Ms. Hadid said, was to create a pavilion that was visually compelling and could be easily transported. The result is a 7,500-square-foot doughnut-shape structure with a central courtyard. Its lightweight panels can be packed in 51 shippable containers. Skylights admit natural light, and computer-generated lighting casts a rainbow of colors around the base of the exterior that glows day and night.

The artist Sylvie Fleury’s video installation “Cristal Custom Commando,” inside a giant Pop Art-style handbag, at the Mobile Art pavilion in Tokyo.

Many of the artists explored the notion of the handbag as a cultural symbol, often with a dash of irreverence. Ms. Fleury created a giant Pop Art-style quilted handbag lined with pink fur; inside is a makeup compact in which you can view a video of women shooting handbags with guns.

A view of the Mobile Art pavilion in Hong Kong.

City officials, who are hoping that the art pavilion will be a draw for tourists, described the money that Chanel is donating as a windfall for the park. Asked whether he anticipated criticism for allowing Chanel to advertise one of its products in the park, Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner countered, “Everything has a sponsor.”

Photo: Virgil Simon Bertrand

Zaha Hadid, pictured in front of the building housing the “Phaeno” Science Center and museum in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 2005.

Ms. Hadid, who won the Pritzker Prize — architecture’s highest honor — in 2004, said that she liked the idea that a pavilion “lands, creates a buzz and disappears.”

Photo: Jochen Luebke/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last month, Esmin Green, a 49-year-old mother of six, tumbled off her chair and onto the floor of the Kings County psychiatric E.R. waiting room in New York City. Members of the hospital staff saw her lying there but did nothing for about an hour.

When Green was finally brought into the E.R., she was dead. An autopsy revealed that she died from a pulmonary embolism, which occurs when a blood clot forms in the leg, breaks off, and travels to one or both lungs. This can also kill long-haul airplane passengers who sit in one spot for hours: The blood sits stagnant in their legs for so long that it clots. You could say that Green, too, had been on a plane ride of sorts. She’d waited for a psychiatric-unit bed to open up for more than 24 hours, roughly the same time as a trip from New York to Tanzania.

The surveillance video of Green collapsing and lying untended, as hospital staff at Kings County fail to respond to her collapse, is inexcusable by any stretch. And so Nancy Grace, for one, focused on the negligence. But what’s largely missing from this story is the likely cause of Green’s pulmonary embolism. The answer lies in a far more systematic and widespread danger in hospital care: E.R. waits. Why was Green sitting and waiting while blood pooled in her legs? Despite increasing evidence that crowded E.R.s can be hazardous to your health, hospitals have incentives to keep their E.R. patients waiting. As a result, there has been an explosion in E.R. wait times over the past few years, even for those who are the sickest.

A major cause for E.R. crowding is the hospital practice of boarding inpatients in emergency departments. This happens when patients who come to the E.R. need to be admitted overnight. If there are no inpatient beds in the hospital (or no extra inpatient nurses on duty that day) then the patient stays in the E.R. long past the completion of the initial emergency work. This is what happened to Green, and it has become widespread and common. The problem is that boarding shifts E.R. resources away from the new patients in the waiting room. While E.R. patients wait for inpatient beds, new patients wait longer to see a doctor. As more new patients come, the waits grow. And an E.R. filled with boarding patients and a full waiting room is an unhappy E.R.: The atmosphere is at once static and chaotic. If you or a loved one has waited for hours in an E.R., you know what we mean. The environment can be unsafe and even deadly. A recent study found that critically ill patients who board for more than six hours in the E.R. are 4 percent more likely to die.

What hospital would promote such a practice? Potentially, those that profit more from boarding, particularly in poorer communities with high numbers of uninsured and Medicaid patients. Imagine you run a hospital. There are two competing sources for inpatient beds. The first source is patients who come in through direct and transfer admissions. They are more likely to come with private insurance and need procedural care, both of which maximize profits. The second source is E.R. patients, who are more likely to be uninsured or have pittance-paying Medicaid and less likely to need high-margin procedures. Do the math: If you fill your hospital with the direct and transfer admissions and maroon the E.R. patients for long periods, you make more money.

In effect, then, E.R. boarding allows hospitals to insulate themselves from the burgeoning needs of the poor. E.R.s are safety nets: By law, we who work in them see any and all patients, regardless of their ability to pay. But as more E.R. beds are devoted to boarders, the E.R. has less space for new patients, which keeps a lid on the number of un- and underinsured. So unless you are having a heart attack and can jump the line, your emergency—though it may still be serious—may wait for so long that you give up and go home. Bad for you, good for the hospital’s bottom line. E.R. boarding also tamps down nursing costs, again not to your benefit. Hospitals generally maintain strict patient-to-nurse ratios for inpatients. But many hospitals don’t apply the same rules to the E.R. because they can’t control the number of patients who come in that way. Sometimes the nursing ratio in the E.R. can be as high as 8-to-1. That’s unacceptable in inpatient units, but just stack ’em in the E.R. hallways and suddenly it’s OK.

What about the staff upstairs, who take care of the admitted patients once they leave the E.R.? Their incentives are misaligned, too. Put yourself in an inpatient nurse’s shoes. You are overworked, and your current patients need attention. You get a call from the E.R., saying that a patient like Green is ready to come upstairs. The bed is clean and ready. But you have 20 more things to do before your shift ends in two hours, and you won’t get paid an extra cent if you accept Green to the empty bed. Can’t she wait just a bit more in the E.R.? When the next nurse comes on fresh, you tell yourself, she can admit the new patient. You won’t get in trouble for stalling because no one really measures how long patients stay in the E.R.. So you tell the E.R. nurse that the bed isn’t ready yet. This practice of “bed-hiding” is more common than you think.

What can be done about all this? We think the answer is that hospitals should have to disclose and take responsibility for how long E.R. patients—that is, you—wait for beds. But, not surprisingly, hospitals have lobbied hard to not be held accountable for E.R. crowding and boarding. If they won’t measure and eliminate E.R. boarding on their own, then the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which pays many hospital patients’ bills, or the Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals, should take this on.

And let’s also hold congressional hearings on E.R. boarding. In England, the National Health System now has a rule that 98 percent of patients have to spend less than four hours in the E.R.. Apparently, the son of a member of parliament spent too long in an E.R., we’ve heard. Esmin Green wasn’t well-connected. But her death should serve as a similar prompt to fix the problem of endless waiting.

Meanwhile, if you have to go the E.R., you can vote with your feet. When you are really sick, of course, go to the closest E.R. or call an ambulance. But if you can wait long enough to choose, go to the E.R. where they don’t make patients wait or board for long periods. Yes, we know—since hospitals don’t publicize E.R. waits or boarding, you’ll have to go by word of mouth. If, despite your efforts, you or your grandmother is forced to lie in the E.R. all night, complain directly to the hospital administrators who actually have the power to fix the problem. But don’t count on any major changes. As long as hospitals profit more from boarding and aren’t forced to admit to doing it, your trip to the E.R. will be as long as a flight to Africa—but without the in-flight movie and far more risky.

By Zachary F. Meisel and Jesse M. Pines
Posted Thursday, July 24, 2008
—————————————————-
Zachary F. Meisel is a practicing emergency physician and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation clinical scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jesse M. Pines is a practicing emergency physician and an assistant professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor whose final lecture inspired millions, died early today in Virginia of pancreatic cancer.

Pam Panchak/Post-GazetteRandy Pausch talks to the standing-room only crowd at Carnegie Mellon University’s McConomy auditorium Sept. 18, 2007

Dr. Pausch, 47, who turned the lecture into a book, said that no one would have been interested in his words of wisdom were he not a man in his 40s with a terminal illness, leaving behind a wife and three young children.

According to Dr. Pausch’s Web site, a biopsy last week revealed that the cancer had progressed further than expected, based on recent PETscans.

“Since last week, Randy has also taken a step down and is much sicker than he had been,” the Web site said. “He’s now enrolled in hospice. He’s no longer able to post here so I’m a friend posting on his behalf because we know that many folks are watching this space for updates.”

Last fall, Dr. Pausch delivered the lecture at CMU, which still posts it on its Web site. The lecture has attracted more than six million viewers.

In the year preceding the lecture, he had gone through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, but refused to give in to morbidity or self-pity. Instead of focusing on the cancer, he talked about how to fulfill childhood dreams and the lessons he learned on his life’s journey.

In his 10 years at CMU, he helped found the Entertainment Technology Center, established an annual virtual reality contest and helped start the Alice program, an animation-based curriculum for teaching high school and college students.

After the lecture, he moved to Chesapeake, Va., to spend his remaining time with his wife, children and family.

Steve Seabolt, a vice president at video-game maker Electronic Arts and one of Dr. Pausch’s best friends, was with him when he died at 4 a.m. today. Dr. Pausch was lucid until near the end, he said, and even went up and down the steps a couple times at home yesterday, “although he had minimal energy.”

Dr. Pausch had stopped taking chemotherapy in recent weeks but was investigating a possible vaccine therapy up until the end of his life, Mr. Seabolt said.

“Randy had an enormous and lasting impact on Carnegie Mellon,” said university President Jared L. Cohon. “He was a brilliant researcher and gifted teacher. His love of teaching, his sense of fun and his brilliance came together in the Alice project, which teaches students computer programming while enabling them to do something fun — making animated movies and games. Carnegie Mellon — and the world — are better places for having had Randy Pausch in them.”

With the help of Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, Dr. Pausch wrote a book, “The Last Lecture,” which was published earlier this year and has now been translated into 30 languages. He elaborated on his lecture and emphasized the value he placed on hard work and learning from criticism. His words were intended as a legacy for his young children.

In May, Dr. Pausch spoke at the Carnegie Mellon University commencement. He said a friend recently told him he was “beating the [Grim] Reaper” because it’s now been nine months since his doctor told him he would die in six.

“But we don’t beat the Reaper by living longer. We beat the Reaper by living well,” said Dr. Pausch, who urged the graduates to find and pursue their passion. He put an exclamation point at the end of his remarks by kissing his wife, Jai, and carrying her off stage.

Mr. Zaslow said the commencement was the last time he saw Dr. Pausch. He recalled that Dr. Pausch was weak enough from his cancer that he had to lie down on a couch before and after his appearance, but as he often did, he mustered his energy for the public appearance, “and he was excited and happy.”

Mr. Zaslow said he had become obsessed with Googling Dr. Pausch’s name each day on the Internet to see how many new Web sites were devoted to him. In an e-mail exchange they had about a month ago, Dr. Pausch “said to me, ‘Will you stop Googling me and go hug your kids?’ So I did.”

In addition to his wife, Dr. Pausch is survived by his children, Dylan, Logan and Chloe. Also surviving are his mother, Virginia Pausch of Columbia, Md., and a sister, Tamara Mason of Lynchburg, Va. The family plans a private burial in Virginia. A campus memorial service is being planned. Details will be announced at a later date. In September, Carnegie Mellon announced a plan to honor Dr. Pausch’s memory and his work as “a tireless advocate and enabler of collaboration between artistic and technical faculty members.” CMU is to build the Randy Pausch Memorial Footbridge, which will connect the Gates Center for Computer Science, now under construction, with an adjacent arts building.

The family requests that donations on his behalf be directed to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, 2141 Rosecrans Ave., Suite 7000, El Segundo, Calif. 90245, or to Carnegie Mellon’s Randy Pausch Memorial Fund, which primarily supports the university’s continued work on the Alice project.

By Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 25, 2008

When Paul Butler began hunting for planets beyond our solar system, few people took him seriously, and some, he says, questioned his credentials as a scientist.

Researcher Jay Quade looks for signs of microbes in Chile’s Atacama Desert. (By Julio L. Betancourt — U.s. Geological Survey Via Associated Press)

That was a decade ago, before Butler helped find some of the first extra-solar planets, and before he and his team identified about half of the 300 discovered since.

Biogeologist Lisa M. Pratt of Indiana University had a similar experience with her early research on “extremophiles,” bizarre microbes found in very harsh Earth environments. She and colleagues explored the depths of South African gold mines and, to their great surprise, found bacteria sustained only by the radioactive decay of nearby rocks.

Indiana University biogeologist Lisa M. Pratt and Edward J. Weiler, chief of NASA’s science division, think life in other solar systems is possible and, perhaps, detectable. (Indiana University – Indiana University)

“Until several years ago, absolutely nobody thought this kind of life was possible — it hadn’t even made it into science fiction,” she said. “Now it’s quite possible to imagine a microbe like that living deep beneath the surface of Mars.”

The experiences of these two researchers reflect the scientific explosion taking place in astrobiology, the multi-disciplined search for extreme forms of life on Earth and for possibly similar, or more advanced, life elsewhere in the solar system and in distant galaxies.

The confidence that alien life will ultimately be found is strong enough to have kindled formal discussions among scientists, philosophers, theologians and others about the implications that such a find would have for humanity’s view of itself, and how to prepare the public for the news, should it come.

“There’s been a fundamental shift in the thinking of the scientific community on the question of life-forms beyond Earth,” Pratt said.

Edward J. Weiler, one of the founders of NASA’s astrobiology program and now chief of the agency’s science division, goes even further.

Astrobiology’s most intensive effort at the moment is focused on Mars, where NASA’s robotic lander Phoenix is digging up soil and ice in a search for organic material. (Bill Ingalls – Associated Press)

“We now know the number of stars in the universe is something like 1 followed by 23 zeros,” he said. “Given that number, how arrogant to think ours is the only sun with a planet that supports life, and that it’s in the only solar system with intelligent life.”

Although humans have speculated for centuries about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, astrobiology began as a formal NASA program only in the mid-1990s, created in the excitement that followed the discovery of a meteorite from Mars that was initially thought to contain fossils or other evidence of microscopic organisms (a conclusion now generally rejected). The field has nonetheless grown quickly. More than 700 scientists and graduate students — including molecular biologists, chemists, planetary scientists and cosmologists — showed up at a NASA-sponsored astrobiology conference in California this past spring.

Many schools have growing astrobiology programs, and planet-hunter Paul Butler often travels from his base at the Carnegie Institution in the District to Chile, Hawaii and Australia to work with other astronomers at big telescopes. He estimates that 1,000 to 2,000 scientists now work in the field.

Few believe that the discovery of extraterrestrial life is imminent. However, just as scientists long theorized that there were planets orbiting other stars — but could not prove it until new technologies and insights broke the field wide open — many astrobiologists now see their job as to develop new ways to search for the life they are sure is out there.

The most intensive effort at the moment is focused on Mars, where NASA’s robotic lander Phoenix is digging up soil and ice in search of organic material. The automated lab has excited scientists by finding many of the nutrients needed for life, although it has not found anything that was, or is, living. Also, photos and other data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter produced dramatic new evidence this month that the planet was once home to vast lakes, flowing rivers and a variety of other wet environments that had the potential to support life.

Much more is on the way. NASA will launch the Kepler probe next year, and its central goal will be to identify Earth-like, and possibly habitable, planets around distant stars. Japanese astronomers plan to band together to observe one star in great detail because of hints that it could have an orbiting planet with life. And preliminary work is underway for joint NASA-European Space Agency probes of Europa and Titan, moons of Jupiter and Saturn with conditions that might support life.

The basic roadmap for the United States’ astrobiology effort, and about $40 million in seed money, came from NASA. It funds the NASA Astrobiology Institute in California and teams of researchers in universities nationwide, as well as efforts to develop new technologies for exploring extreme forms of life in Mars- or moon-like environments on Earth. The yearly astrobiology budget was halved after reaching a peak of $60 million in 2005, but pressure from the space science community is pushing that figure back up.

Butler and Pratt are part of Astrobiology Institute-funded teams, as are scientists who are creating virtual planets to model what the atmosphere of a distant inhabited planet might look like, and others studying how very simple organisms evolve into more complex ones. This kind of basic research is often used by NASA, as well as other astronomers and explorers for extraterrestrial life, to design space missions and plan ground-based observations.

John Rummel, director of the NASA astrobiology program, said the program is changing the way people think about life on Earth and beyond.

“The context for life is much broader than just what we see on Earth,” he said. “Organic material is falling from the sky all the time, and we’re learning that what happens out there is very important down here. Who knows: Maybe life on Earth came from Mars billions of years ago, when it had liquid water on its surface.”

Rummel said that the discovery of many varieties of extremophiles on Earth, coupled with a better understanding of some potentially habitable environments on other planets or moons, leads him to believe that life beyond Earth will be found, with ramifications comparable to Copernicus’s 15th-century discovery that Earth is not the center of the universe. “The Copernican revolution continues,” Rummel said.

Tales of canals and green men on Mars, UFOs and “Star Trek” characters have long captured the imagination, but finding microbes or evidence of other life beneath the surface of Mars or on the moons of Jupiter or Saturn is another matter entirely. Even if the first extraterrestrial life to be identified were primitive rather than intelligent, experts said, the discovery would be a major milestone in human history.

“If any extraterrestrial life is found in our solar system and we can determine it has no relation to life on Earth, then the assumption has to be that life of all sorts is quite common throughout the galaxies,” Butler said.

To some, debating the implications of discovering extraterrestrial life is premature at best, because — all UFO “sightings” aside — none has ever been found.

Two Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s to search for organic material did not identify any — although they were unable to dig below the rugged and parched Martian surface into the ground where scientists now think that water and possibly life could be found. In addition, the private group SETI, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has been broadcasting radio messages to hoped-for intelligent aliens for years and listening for a response — sometimes with NASA support — but has been met so far with silence. And what some consider the rush to declare that the meteorite from Mars contained fossil remains has become an object lesson in the importance of confirming the science before making any declarations about extraterrestrial life.

What is different now, researchers say, is that they know so much more about extreme life-forms on Earth that could quite comfortably live on other planets. In addition to South Africa’s radioactivity-driven bacteria, extremophiles have also been found living near super-hot sulfurous steam vents at the deep ocean floor, in pools composed almost entirely of acid, and recently two miles below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet. All get little or no energy from the sun, which sustains virtually all other life-forms, and their survival makes it more conceivable that microbes could live in the sub-surface ice or water on Mars and Europa.

Having identified more than 300 planets outside the solar system, researchers are also convinced that planets and solar systems — some probably similar to ours — are present and perhaps quite common, elsewhere in the universe. The next step is to find extrasolar planets in the “habitable zone” of their solar systems; planets whose size, makeup and distance from their sun might allow life to develop.

In addition, the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments have given researchers new data about the evolution and structure of the universe — information that makes it increasingly appear to be “fine-tuned” for life.

Lord Martin Rees, England’s Astronomer Royal made that argument as the keynote speaker at NASA’s spring astrobiology conference — saying that life could not exist on Earth or anywhere else if the basic physical dynamics of the universe were not almost precisely what they are. Slight changes in the strength of the electrical force that holds atoms together, of the pull of gravity, or of the total mass of the universe would have made it difficult for stars to form and create the heavy elements essential for life, and impossible for them to remain active long enough to support the process of evolution.

Many religious thinkers see this fine-tuning as an argument for the existence of a creator, but Rees and other cosmologists offer a different explanation: that our universe is but one in a world of multiple (or infinite) universes. However it came into being, Rees argued, our universe is inherently life-supporting, and there is no reason to believe that that potential has been realized only on Earth.

The excitement now in the field, and its central challenges, were expressed in a report last year by the National Research Council, which assembles experts to study scientific issues and problems.

“The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems” report — also known simply as “Weird Life” — concluded: “The likelihood of encountering some form of life in subsurface Mars and sub-ice Europa appears high. . . . The committee sees no reason to exclude the possibility of life in environments as diverse as the aerosols above Venus and the water-ammonia [mixture] of Titan.”

The report then warned that “nothing would be more tragic to the American exploration of space than to encounter alien life and fail to recognize it, either because of the consequences of contamination or because of the lack of proper tools and scientific preparation.”

Astrobiology’s goal is to make sure that does not happen.

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

A police dog from DeKalb County, Ga., was shot in the face by a fleeing suspect on Thursday morning. Local investigators say the animal, whose name is Twan, is a “sworn officer.” How does a police animal take the oath of office?

Sometimes with a bark but usually with human help. Human police officers are typically sworn in at a brief ceremony attended by the new officers’ families and friends. Canine swearing-in ceremonies, on the other hand, tend to be public events celebrating the role of police dogs. In some cases, the police chief administers the human oath of office to the dog, and the handler affirms on the dog’s behalf. In rare instances, the dog is trained to bark in affirmation of the oath. When the ceremony is complete, the dog is presented with a badge to wear on its collar.

There is no legal significance to swearing in a canine officer. Anyone who kills a federal law enforcement animal will face fines and up to 10 years in prison, but there is no sentence enhancement if the animal has taken an oath. Similar statutes exist to protect police animals from malicious injury in every state but South Dakota—but these, like the federal law, apply to every canine cop, not just the ones that bark, “I do.”

Many police dogs don’t even speak English. European breeders have been selecting and propagating service dogs for generations, and their dogs are preferred by many U.S. police departments for their ability to obey orders under the stressful conditions of police work. Because these dogs receive their initial training in foreign countries, U.S. handlers often continue to command them in German or Dutch. There is a widespread myth that foreign language training is intended to prevent suspects from contradicting the commands of the handler. In fact, the dog is trained to ignore commands from anyone except its handler. (If you want to test the myth, the next time a police dog is pursuing you, try to make the dog heel by yelling “Fuß!” or “Volg!”)

* Brian Palmer is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.
Posted Friday, July 18, 2008

A photographer’s strobe gives a violet sheen to this translucent juvenile roundbelly cowfish off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. Also known as the transparent boxfish, the roundbelly cowfish has two short horns in front of its eyes.

A copepod, a type of zooplankton, drifts in the Weddell Sea near Antarctica. Copepods are microscopic relatives of shrimp and lobsters

A pelagic, or open-ocean, octopus gives off a neon glow in Hawaii. Most species of octopus have no internal skeleton, unlike other cephalopods.

Antarctic krill, such as this specimen in the Weddell Sea with a stomach full of yellow algae, are a critical link in the ocean food web.

Lacking any other defense, many larval fish have adapted transparency as a method of camouflage—such as this tiny, see-through larval leaf scorpionfish in Hawaii.

A tiny jellyfish, with tentacles folded and its orange central mass visible through its transparent body, drifts in the waters of Antarctica’s Weddell Sea.

A transparent larval shrimp piggybacks on an equally see-through jellyfish in the waters around Hawaii.

An opalescent squid uses its giant eyes to navigate the nighttime waters around Papua New Guinea.

* Source: National Geographic

The Arctic may contain as much as a fifth of the world’s yet to-be-discovered oil and natural gas reserves, the United States Geological Survey said Wednesday as it unveiled the largest-ever survey of petroleum resources north of the Arctic Circle.

Oil companies have long suspected that the Arctic contained substantial energy resources, and have been spending billions recently to get their hands on tracts for exploration. As melting ice caps have opened up prospects that were once considered too harsh to explore, a race has begun among Arctic nations, including the United States, Russia, and Canada, for control of these resources.

The geological agency’s survey largely vindicates the rising interest. It suggests that most of the yet-to-be found resources are not under the North Pole but much closer to shore, in regions that are not subject to territorial dispute.

“For a variety of reasons, the possibility of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic has become much less hypothetical than it once was,” Donald L. Gautier, the chief geologist for the survey, said during a news conference Wednesday. “Most of the resources are on the continental shelf in areas already under territorial claims.”

The assessment, which took four years, found that the Arctic may hold as much as 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves, and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This would amount to 13 percent of the world’s total undiscovered oil and about 30 percent of the undiscovered natural gas.

At today’s consumption rate of 86 million barrels a day, the potential oil in the Arctic could meet global demand for almost three years. The Arctic’s potential natural gas resources are three times bigger. That equals Russia’s proven gas reserves, which is the world’s largest.

The agency called the Arctic region “the largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on earth.”

The world currently holds 1.24 trillion barrels of proven oil reserves and 6,263 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves.

The survey looked at “undiscovered technically recoverable resources,” defined as resources that can be produced using current technology.

While the findings contain some uncertainty, they confirm a widely held industry belief that the Arctic may be the next frontier for global oil exploration.

Two regions stand out. A third of the yet-to-be discovered oil, or about 30 billion barrels, is off the coast of Alaska. The findings also confirmed the pivotal role of Russia. Nearly two-thirds of the yet-to-be found natural gas resources are in two Russian provinces, the West Siberian Basin and the East Barents Basin, which straddles the territorial waters of Russia and Norway.

Speaking of Alaska, Mr. Gautier said: “It is the most obvious place to look for oil in the North Arctic right now. It is virtually certain that petroleum will be found there.”

Unlike much of the continental shelf off the lower 48 states, the Alaskan coast is generally open to oil exploration. This year, oil companies spent $2.6 billion to acquire leases on government-controlled offshore tracts.

Even as production declines on Alaska’s North Slope, many people believe Alaska could see a revival as oil companies move offshore. Native and environmental groups are fighting some offshore drilling, however.

The geological survey compiled estimates from a variety of sources, including government and privately held data, from Denmark, Greenland, Norway, Russia, the United States and Canada.

By JAD MOUAWAD (NYT)

Soon after American forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Gen. Tommy R. Franks surprised senior Army officers by revamping the Baghdad-based military command.

The decision reflected the assumption by General Franks, the top American commander for the Iraq invasion, that the major fighting was over. But according to a new Army history, the move put the military effort in the hands of a short-staffed headquarters led by a newly promoted three-star general, and was made over the objections of the Army’s vice chief of staff.

“The move was sudden and caught most of the senior commanders in Iraq unaware,” states the history, which adds that the staff for the new headquarters was not initially “configured for the types of responsibilities it received.”

The story of the American occupation of Iraq has been the subject of numerous books, studies and memoirs. But now the Army has waded into the highly charged debate with its own nearly 700-page account: “On Point II: Transition to the New Campaign.”

The unclassified study, the second volume in a continuing history of the Iraq conflict, is as noteworthy for who prepared it as for what it says. In essence, the study is an attempt by the Army to tell the story of one of the most contentious periods in its history to military experts — and to itself.

It adds to a growing body of literature about the problems the United States encountered in Iraq, not all of which has been embraced by Army leaders.

Lt. Col. Paul Yingling of the Army ignited a debate when he wrote a magazine article that criticized American generals for failing to prepare a coherent plan to stabilize postwar Iraq.

In 2005, the RAND Corporation submitted a report to the Army, called “Rebuilding Iraq,” that identified problems with virtually every government agency that played a role in planning the postwar phase. After a long delay, the report is scheduled to be made public on Monday.

But the “On Point” report carries the imprimatur of the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth. The study is based on 200 interviews conducted by military historians and includes long quotations from active or recently retired officers.

Publication was delayed six months so that Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the current Army chief of staff and former top commander in Iraq, could be interviewed and senior Army leaders could review a draft.

The study’s authors were instructed not to shy away from controversy while withholding a final verdict on whether senior officials had made mistakes that decisively altered the course of the war, said Col. Timothy R. Reese, the director of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., who, along with Donald Wright, a civilian historian at the institute, oversaw the volume’s preparation.

Even so, the study documents a number of problems that hampered the Army’s ability to stabilize the country during Phase IV, as the postwar stage was called.

“The Army, as the service primarily responsible for ground operations, should have insisted on better Phase IV planning and preparations through its voice on the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” the study noted. “The military means employed were sufficient to destroy the Saddam regime; they were not sufficient to replace it with the type of nation-state the United States wished to see in its place.”

For his part, General Franks said through an aide that he had covered Iraq decisions in his book and had not seen the forthcoming report.

The report focuses on the 18 months after President Bush’s May 2003 announcement that major combat operations in Iraq were over. It was a period when the Army took on unanticipated occupation duties and was forced to develop new intelligence-gathering techniques, armor its Humvees, revise its tactics and, after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, review its detention practices.

A big problem, the study says, was the lack of detailed plans before the war for the postwar phase, a deficiency that reflected the general optimism in the White House and in the Pentagon, led by then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, about Iraq’s future, and an assumption that civilian agencies would assume much of the burden.

“I can remember asking the question during our war gaming and the development of our plan, ‘O.K., we are in Baghdad, what next?’ No real good answers came forth,” Col. Thomas G. Torrance, the commander of the Third Infantry Division’s artillery, told Army historians.

The allied land war command, which was led by Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan and which reported to General Franks, did additional work on the postwar phase, but its plan was not formally distributed to the troops until April 2003, when the ground invasion was under way.

Inadequate training was also a factor. Lt. Col. Troy Perry, the operations officer of the First Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, told Army historians that his unit trained extensively, but not for the sort of problems that it would encounter in setting up “stability operations” for securing Iraq once Mr. Hussein’s government fell.

A fundamental assumption that hobbled the military’s planning was that Iraq’s ministries and institutions would continue to function after Mr. Hussein’s government was toppled.

“We had the wrong assumptions and therefore we had the wrong plan to put into play,” said Gen. William S. Wallace, who led the V Corps during the invasion and currently leads the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

Faced with a brewing insurgency and occupation duties that they had not anticipated, Army units were forced to adapt. But organizational decisions made in May and June 2003 complicated that task.

L. Paul Bremer III, who replaced Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general, as the chief civilian administrator in Iraq, issued decrees to disband the Iraqi Army and ban thousands of former Baath Party members from working for the government, orders that the study asserts caught American field commanders “off guard” and, in their view, “created a pool of disaffected and unemployed Sunni Arabs” that the insurgency could draw on.

Some of General Franks’s moves also appeared divorced from the growing problems in Iraq. Before the fall of Baghdad, Col. Kevin Benson, a planner at the land war command, developed a plan that called for using about 300,000 soldiers to secure postwar Iraq, about twice as many as were deployed.

But that was not what General Franks and the Bush administration had in mind. In an April 16 visit to Baghdad, General Franks instructed his officers to be prepared to reduce forces rapidly during an “an abbreviated period of stability operations,” the study notes.

“In line with the prewar planning and general euphoria at the rapid crumbling of the Saddam regime, Franks continued to plan for a very limited role for U.S. ground forces in Iraq,” the report says.

The next month, General Franks directed General McKiernan, then the senior officer in Baghdad, to leave Iraq, along with the staff of his land war command, which had helped plan the invasion and had overseen the push to Baghdad.

A new headquarters would be established to command the military forces in Iraq and was to be led by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez. He had led the First Armored Division into Iraq before being promoted and picked to succeed General Wallace as the head of the Army’s V Corps, which was to serve as the nucleus of the newly established command.

When Gen. Jack Keane, the vice chief of staff of the Army, learned of the move, he was upset. General Keane had helped General McKiernan assemble his headquarters, which had long been focused on Iraq and had more high-ranking officers than V Corps, which had been deployed from Europe. General Keane assumed that General McKiernan’s headquarters would oversee what was fast becoming a troubled occupation.

“I think we did not put the best experienced headquarters that we had in charge of that operation,” General Keane said in an interview with Army historians. “It took us months, six or seven or eight months, to get some semblance of a headquarters together so Sanchez could at least begin to function effectively.”

General Keane told the historians that he raised his concerns at the time with Lt. Gen. John P. Abizaid, who had been picked to succeed General Franks as the head of Central Command.

“I said, ‘Jesus Christ, John, this is a recipe for disaster,’ ” General Keane told Army historians. “I was upset about it to say the least, but the decision had been made and it was a done deal.”

Asked about the decision to establish a new headquarters, General Franks told Army historians that he had told the Pentagon what was needed and that it was the Defense Department’s responsibility to ensure that the headquarters was rapidly installed.

He said he told the Pentagon leadership that a new headquarters was needed and that it was up to them to “figure it out.”

General Sanchez, who has retired from the Army and recently published a book about his time in Iraq, told historians that his new command was hampered by staff shortages and by the failure to coordinate the transfer of responsibilities to his new headquarters.

“There was not a single session that was held at the command level to hand off or transition anything,” he said.

Summing up the episode, General Wallace told historians that the shift to a new headquarters involved a complicated transfer of responsibilities at a critical time.

“You can’t take a tactical headquarters and change it into an operational headquarters at the snap of your fingers,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen.”

* By MICHAEL R. GORDON
(WASHINGTON — June 29, 2008)

Sand is implacable here in far western China. It blows and shifts and eats away at everything, erasing boundaries, scouring graves, leaving farmers in despair. It’s one of many threats to the major tourist draw of Dunhuang, a city on the lip of the Gobi desert: the hundreds of rock-cut Buddhist grottoes that pepper a cliff face outside town.

Known as Mogaoku – ”peerless caves” – and filled with paradisiacal frescos and hand-molded clay sculptures of savior-gods and saints, they are like nothing else in the Chinese Buddhist world. And Mogaoku is in trouble. After a dramatic increase in traffic, the caves are deteriorating because of high levels of carbon dioxide and humidity.

A detail of a scene with flying apsaras, a type of celestial chorine. (The umbrella in the left-hand corner shelters Buddha.)Set between Mongolia and Tibet, Dunhuang was a vital juncture on the Silk Road. Because of its gateway position, it was where Buddhism spilled out of India and Central Asia into China, leaving a residue of spectacular art.

An array of painted sculptures.The earliest examples of caves, small and plain, were used for shelter and meditation, occasionally for burials. By the early fifth century, however, larger grottoes were excavated as temples and monastic lecture halls. Many had chapel-like niches and freestanding altars, all cut from stone. The interiors were sculpted with architectural features as if to simulate buildings.

A hunting scene, painted in a cave in Dunhuang.Painting covered everything. Murals illustrating tales from the Buddha’s past lives, were popular, as were images of court fetes. Rock ceilings were covered with fields of decorative patterning to evoke an illusion of fabric pavilions. Any leftover space was filled with figures of tiny deities.

A fifth-century painted Buddha, sprinkled with desert dust, shows some deterioration. Sculptures for the most part were made of mud. But the body of the 75-foot-tall Buddha in the cave known as “Nine-Storyed Temple” is carved from the rock face and plastered over. His feet are planted at the cliff base; he looks out through a window carved at the top.

An illustration of buildings from the Infinite Life Sutra. By the 11th century Dunhuang’s fortunes were in decline. Sea trade had cut into Silk Road traffic. Regional wars left the town isolated and forgotten. Nature went to work. Sand from the dunes swept into the grottoes. Rock facades gave way, leaving interiors exposed. When people finally reappeared, the damage only increased.

An illustration of Mount Wutai, located in the Creating Harmony Temple in Wutai County.Plans are therefore under way to recast the entire Dunhuang experience in a way that will both intensify and distance it. Digital technology will give visitors a kind of total immersion encounter with the caves impossible before now, but that immersion will take place 15 miles from the site. The question of access versus preservation is a poignant one and is by no means confined to Mogaoku. What are we willing to give up to keep fragile monuments intact?

Photo: Wu Jian/Dunhuang Academy