Friday, December 30, 2016

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in AsiaThe South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia by Bill Hayton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bill Hayton has written an important book about a world hotspot that receives far too little attention in the United States and Europe now obsessed with Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis and the mess in the Middle East. In the meantime, the South China Sea region continues to grow importance as a global economic powerhouse, while tensions mount between the increasingly aggressive China and its neighbors. The importance of South China Sea goes far beyond the region. For example, US$5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (Armed Clash in the South China Sea). Of this, U.S. trade accounts for US1.2 trillion. According to security expert Robert D. Kaplan, almost 60% of Japan’s and Taiwan’s and 80% of China’s crude oil imports are also transported through the relatively narrow sea lanes in the region. As China flexes its political and military muscles in order to secure the mineral and other resources in the South China Sea to itself, it is imperative for the rest of the world to ensure that the international waters in the area remain open for navigation. Hence the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State.

South China Sea directly borders a large number countries, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, and the Republic of China (Taiwan). In addition, countries like Japan have an important stake in the sea. As a semi-enclosed sea, there is considerable scope for overlapping claims for territorial waters in the area. China has unilaterally established a “nine-dashed line” – known as the “cow’s tongue” – that usurps most of South China Sea to the big brother in the region. In 2009, the Chinese government attached a map of this “U-shaped line” to its submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. At stake are island groups, such as the Paracels (claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam) and the Spratly Islands (disputed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam), and their presumed resources, from oil and minerals to fishing. In 2013, the Philippines brought the case under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to the International Court of Justice, which in June 2016 ruled in the Philippines’ favor on seven of the aspects in the case (stating that in other seven submissions it was not able to provide a ruling). Needless to say, China has not accepted the ruling. Hayton in his book gives extensive background to the disputes and China’s attempts to use both the notion of territorial waters under UNCLOS as well as historical arguments to justify its claims to most of the sea area.

In the first lengthy chapter, ‘Wrecks and Wrongs: Prehistory to 1500’, Hayton provides a comprehensive historical overview of the waxing and waning empires – including the Champa, Angkor and Srivijaya – in the South China Sea area and the importance of the Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network (using the term coined by the archeologist Wilhem Solheim). This analysis convincingly refutes the notion of any single nation having unique historical claims to the sea. In the following chapter, ‘Maps and Lines: 1500 to 1948’, the book moves on to the era when the European colonial powers played a significant role in the region, until the times in the 1930s when the Chinese government turned to map-making in trying to exert its control over the region. Hayton demonstrates how new Chinese names were invented for many of the islands and reefs, sometimes just translating the names that the French and the British had given to them (like in the case of North Danger Reef in Spratly Islands, which was simply translated into Bei xian), to give legitimacy to the historical claims. The French geographer, Fran├žois-Xavier Bonnet has also shown how China has planted archaeological evidence on the islands in the South China Sea to bolster its territorial claims (Archeology and Patriotism: Long Term Chinese Strategies in the South China Sea, 2015). Following Mao’s revolution, the Communists adopted the policies and maps of the predecessor government.

China, however, has not been the only regional actor trying to ensure access to South China Sea and its resources. Others, not least Vietnam and the Philippines, have been active, too, sometimes using inventive tactics to expand their control. For example, both countries established garrisons on deserted islands in the North Spratly Islands trying to outmaneuver each other. Despite earlier conflicts, these garrisons are now on speaking terms and have even organized football and basketball matches between themselves. One of the core strategies of all the actors has been to try to establish a permanent foothold on uninhabited (and often uninhabitable) islands or mere rocks, so as to be able to claim territorial waters around them. Hayton gives detailed and interesting accounts of these efforts. Placing permanent structures and settlements for military personnel unfortunate enough to be posted in these hostile environments is hard when a rock is unable to support food production or is part of the year submerged under water. These claims can’t be accepted under international law, but it hasn’t stopped China and others from establishing bases on them. This strategy may be dissolved in water when rising sea levels due to global warming fully submerge the geological formations.

Among the key actors in the fray have, naturally, been many energy companies hoping for a bonanza on the hydrocarbons supposedly lying under the South China Sea. The extent of these, as well as the technical and economic feasibility of extracting them, is still somewhat unknown. Still multinationals, such as BP and ExxonMobil (and many of their subsidiaries, some established just for this purpose), as well as national energy companies like the Sinopec (China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation) have entered the geopolitical game as active players. Surely the Secretary of State nominee, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, will be able to advice the incoming President Trump on the intricacies of the situation.

In the sixth chapter, ‘Drums and Symbols: Nationalism’, Hayton discusses how the countries in the region have used sovereignty issues around South China Sea to boost nationalistic sentiments, often to divert attention from domestic problems. Equally obviously, all countries in the basin, as well as outside, such as the United States, use political carrots and sticks to convince others, including those in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), to support their position. China’s diplomacy, which alternates between economic incentives and military threats, is especially powerful in this regard. Towards the end of the book, chapter 8 focuses on ‘Shaping the Battlefield: Military Matters’, outlining the military buildup in the region, as well as the role of the United States armed forces providing security guarantees to its allies, notably Taiwan, but also others.

Last but not at all least, the South China Sea is significant in terms of its environment. Apart from fisheries, Hayton does not spend much time discussing environmental issues. The fishing issue is big enough in itself, given that the 500 million or so, largely poor, people living on the shores of South China Sea depend on fish for their protein. In the last chapter 9, ‘Cooperation and Its Opposites: Resolving the Disputes’, Hayton discusses the declining yields caused by overfishing and development in the sea. There has been a steady increase in the number of fishing operators (from 584,000 in 1980 to 1.8 million in 2002) and the fishing fleets’ power, size and ability to operate far offshore has equally increased. Over the same period, the average catch of a small inshore fisherman has fallen from 20 kg to 2 kg, which barely allows for subsistence. Again, China is the biggest culprit and as its fishing boats have ventured further away, this has led to clashes with other nations’ coast guards. Recognizing the problem, China has attempted to establish periodic fishing bans to allow for the fish stocks to recuperate, but this is not enough. A better solution would be to establish permanent marine protected areas, but this obviously requires agreement and cooperation by all countries in the region.

Apart from the fisheries, the South China Sea basin is a repository of globally significant ecosystems and biodiversity in mangroves, seagrass beds and the like. These are threatened by coastal development, extensive aquaculture, land-based sources of pollution and many other human-induced stresses. The project, ‘Reversing Environmental Degradation Trends in the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand’, funded by the organization that I work for, Global Environment Facility, and implemented by the UN Environment Programme, is a major effort to fight these trends – and it was the first regional program of its kind in which China agreed to participate. I was delighted to see the program getting mention in Hayton’s book.

The South China Sea by Bill Hayton is a good complement to Robert D. Kaplan’s fine 2014 book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. In fact, where Kaplan focuses on military and security issues (while giving geography and politics fair coverage), Hayton’s approach is broader. Especially the historical chapters are amongst the best in the book, bringing new information in a consolidated form and putting the current issues in perspective.

South China Sea is an area with high risk for conflict, even if a shooting war between China and the U.S. would be unlikely. Just earlier this month, a Chinese navy ship intercepted and confiscated a U.S. submarine drone in international waters causing tensions between the two countries. Lynn Kuok, in an opinion piece published by the Brookings Institution this month, advises the incoming administration about the importance of the region for US and global strategic interests (“America first” cannot mean “America alone”: Engaging Southeast Asia). If the US withdraws from the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), ignores ASEAN, and waffles on its interests and commitments in the region, this will only benefit China as the hegemon of the region. Others, like Susan Shirk, head of the China policy center at the University of California San Diego, have argued that the US interests in the South China Sea are limited (see China’s Great Leap Backward by James Fallows in The Atlantic). Then again, as Kuok wrote in June 2016, “The South China Sea dispute is about much more than mere ‘rocks.’ It concerns maritime rights and the preservation of the system of international law. More broadly, how the United States and China interact in the South China Sea has important implications of their relationship elsewhere and on other issues” (The U.S. FON Program in the South China Sea).

In my opinion, the South China Sea issues are so important for regional stability, freedom of navigation, food security, and the global environment, that they deserve the full attention of the world at large.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

DC Jazz Summer 2016

The Nation’s Capital is a cultural town with the best museums and the Smithsonian Institutions that are all free, the Kennedy Center with its top class performing arts, and a generally well-educated and wealthy populace who take advantage of the opportunities (admittedly, the education and wealth are highly unevenly distributed). In jazz, however, the city can’t compete with New York. Looking back, the summer of 2016 was nevertheless highly satisfying.

Every June sees the DC Jazz Festival in full swing with lots of concerts and live events in different settings. My season started on June 18, when I caught the Mika Mimura group as part of the Jazz Fest. The concert took place at the Japan Information and Culture Center, which has a medium-sized hall styled like an old-fashioned theater. Mika Mimura is a marimba and vibraphone artist born in Osaka, Japan. She has released two CDs under her own name consisting mostly of her own compositions, ‘Precious’ in 2009 and ‘Dreamii’ in 2014. At the JICC she played with a group consisting of the Argentinian guitarist Ignacio Hernandez, and her compatriots Kuriko Tsugawa on bass and Ken Yanabe on percussion. Mika Mimura displayed some impressive mallet work on pieces like‘The Flight of the Bumblebee,’ but was somewhat overshadowed by her mentor, Warren Wolf, whom she had invited to make a guest appearance at the concert. Wolf, a much in demand musician and teacher from Baltimore, displayed such grace, musicality and relaxed charm that his act was hard to compete with. I was also particularly taken by Tsugawa’s bass work that was both subtle and musical. Educated at Berklee College of Music and based in New York, she is a composer and leader in her own right. All in all a highly satisfying evening.

On the following night (June 19) I headed to the Hamilton for a double booking with two of today’s finest Hammond organists, Cory Henry and Joey DeFrancesco. The Hamilton, close to the White House, is one of the best music venues in DC area and, indeed, anywhere. It’s a fairly large space, with tables in front of the stage, a bar on the side towards right, and another bar up the stairs right in front of the stage. The latter is my favored location, but the advantage with the venue is that no matter where you are seated or standing, the view to the stage is unobstructed and the acoustics are very good. So I ordered some wine and got comfortable waiting for the show to start. Cory Henry was a new acquaintance to me but his turned out to be the better part of the evening, at least for me. As the name of his band, The Funk Apostles, would suggest, we were in for some serious funk that night. But the point is that this was not just rhythm music to make you move. Cory Henry’s music is imaginative and creative, the compositions are often complex with intricate harmonies and chord changes. On top of that, Henry’s own playing is both funky and sophisticated at the same time.

As a longer established musician, Joey DeFrancesco was billed as the main attraction of the evening
and the performance was very good. Unfortunately, the more traditional organ trio sounded a bit sedate after the riotous Funk Apostles. DeFrancesco’s organ sound fits well in a nightclub setting and his sidemen, on guitar and drums, performed in a highly skilled fashion in the standard jazz genre. A couple of times the leader would add to the nightclub atmosphere by singing some mellow jazz tunes or taking up his soft blown trumpet. The intensity picked up when he introduced his new tenor sax player. The evening closed with a lengthy jam session when Cory Henry joined the DeFrancesco band on stage. This final interplay with the two virtuoso keyboardists egging each other on was definitely a highlight of the night and received a roaring response from the full house.

On June 22nd the Finnish Embassy hosted an event with Nordic jazz. The modern building on Massachusetts Avenue is exceptionally beautiful, with a high ceiling, simple light wood fixtures and tall windows giving over a forested lot that was still the light green color of early summer. The embassy is also an excellent venue for music due to its good acoustics (and the open wine bar at the side).

First on stage was Sigmar Matthiasson NYC Quartet. The New York based bassist and composer is one of the best known jazz musicians emerging from Iceland. His multinational NYC Quartet consisted of Taulant Mehmeti on guitar, Baden Goyo on piano and Ayman Boujlida on drums. The music was contemplative and dreamlike, broadly in the category that is exemplified by ECM records.

The second performance of the evening was somewhat rougher. The Finnish pianist and composer Mika Pohjola presented a trio with Kyle Struve on drums and Jerome Sabbagh on tenor sax.  The lack of bass took some time to get used to but Mika’s strong left hand was mostly able to fill the void.

On the last week of June I had to travel to Canada for work and subsequently spent three weeks in Japan in July, so there was a month during which I missed whatever Washington could offer music-wise.

Soon upon my return, on July 31, I headed to the Blues Alley in Georgetown where the great  LA-based Poncho Sanchez was making a rare East Coast appearance with his Latin Jazz Band. He told the audience this was his first performance in DC in the past 30 years. I myself last saw him perform in Hollywood in the late-1980s, so this Georgetown reunion was long overdue. This was his last sold out night after several evenings of performances and it turned into a fabulous show. The venerable Blues Alley is a small and intimate venue – Dizzy Gillespie is said to have called it the finest jazz and supper club in the country. It worked perfectly for Poncho’s band, with the leader on congas, percussion and vocals, backed by Joey De Leon (timbales), Rene Camacho (bass), Rob Blake (trumpet and flugelhorn), Robert Hardt (alto and tenor saxophones, flute), Francisco Torres (trombone), Angel Rodriguez (bongos, congas), and Andy Langham (piano). Francisco Torres also serves as the musical director of the band. Blake played some very good trumpet and a lovely solo on the flugelhorn. Hardt shone on the tenor sax, especially in a blues number by Albert King, but it was his beautiful work on the alto sax that particularly caught my ear. He also played one excellent flute solo (I would have liked to hear more). The most innovative player, however, was Andy Langham who was as avant garde as you would ever hear a Latin pianist play. After the show I was so hyper that I couldn’t make myself go straight home. Instead, I crossed M Street and walked up Wisconsin Avenue to El Centro D.F. to wind down with a couple of more glasses of wine in a Latin setting.

On Saturday August the 13th I decided to leave town and headed to the Chesapeake Bay and the small resort town of North Beach. The traffic was heavy as many others had had a similar idea, but I reached the shore well before lunchtime. The weather was brutally hot and humid. The temperature hit +36oC that afternoon and there was absolutely no wind. I was sweating profusely when I found a popular Mexican place, Plaza Mexico, in which to cool down. After my break, I wandered around the beach and watched people swimming in the bay. Then I stumbled upon what was labeled the 1st Annual North Beach Jazz Festival. I entered the small and cozy courtyard – the Yard at 7th Street Market – where the action was. There was a tent where cold beer and hot BBQ were sold. A few tables and chairs were scattered in front of a small stage where a band was playing. There may have been twenty or thirty people in the audience. I found a shady corner and set to listen to the music. 

The first band was fronted by a trumpet player backed by four gentlemen on electric piano, guitar, bass and drums. The music appealed to the audience, myself included, as it swung in a relaxed manner in the summer heat. The predominant mode was 1970s-80s style rock jazz, as exemplified by a decent rendition of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island.’

After a short break, another band set up on stage. This one was led by local guitarist, DeonCleanCutt. His two sons belonged to the band as well, the younger playing the drums and the older teenager the trumpet and flugelhorn (he clearly had adopted some of the cool mannerisms of Miles). The fourth member of the band was a bass player from California who was visiting his friend here on East Coast. The bass player no doubt was the most accomplished of the musicians, having performed with such jazz stars as David Murray. The music played by this family group relied more on straight blues and jazz. 

All in all, the festival was an extraordinarily sympathetic event, even if the local bands were nothing spectacular. Mental note: make sure to find out when the 2nd Annual North Beach Jazz Festival takes place next summer.

On August 18, I again got the urge to listen to some live music, so I checked the schedules of the known places in the city to find out that Cyrus Chestnut would be performing at the Blues Alley. So I headed back to Georgetown to catch the later show at 9 pm. Am I ever so glad that I did! The piano trio is a versatile format that gives ample space for the players to stretch out based on their abilities and musical imagination. These are qualities that Cyrus Chestnut is not short of. The sensitive, innovative, open minded, creative, genre bending pianist seems totally unhindered by trivial matters like technique. In his hands, original numbers as well as standards get such a breathtaking treatment that the audience can only gasp in amazement. Again, it was impossible for me to return home without stopping at a bar to calm down.

Then on August 27 it was back to the Hamilton. This time the attraction was Al Di Meola whose Elegant Gypsy meets Romantic Warrior tour was making a one-night stop in the capital. The two-hour musical trip that Al Di Meola treated us to rekindled my enthusiasm for the music of this amazing artist whose music I have to confess I hadn’t really listened to since the 1980s. Despite the complexity and virtuosity, the music at the concert was always warm and lyrical. The band played a lot of new material, including from Di Meola’s fresh album ‘Elysium’ (it is an excellent and beautiful one), although fans would get treated to many of the old favorites as well. 

The concert was divided into three segments. The first part focused on fusion numbers that displayed some of the most advanced playing of the evening. A key member in the band was a tall young black man playing some very inspired electric violin. The second part saw Di Meola switching to an acoustic guitar and the mood changed. The final part was again electric but the focus was on more straightforward jazz rock. The set opened with a powerful version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ in which a wailing violin played the part of Robert Plant. Some beautiful Santanaesque Latin beats followed. The Hamilton’s high ceiling was again raised when the band, which played like a dream, received several standing ovations and a raucous call for an encore, an encore that was highly rewarding.

September 2 was a night that I had prepared for. I had bought the tickets months ago as they became available. Despite the threat of rain, Chicago drew a crowd of some 7,000 to the Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia. Still going strong, Chicago played a two-hour non-stop show to an enthusiastic audience. The band was fronted by the three-man horn section consisting of the original members: Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walter Parazaider. The gentlemen have aged graciously but still put up a very vigorous performance, each playing inspired solos as well as the section parts that were as tight as ever. Old tunes from the band’s earliest albums, like ‘Make Me Smile’ followed each other. The original keyboardist, singer and composer Robert Lammm was there, although his role was somewhat more low key than in the past when his distinct keyboard and vocals defined the Chicago sound alongside the horns. The “new” members have not changed the Chicago sound noticeably. The keyboardist Lou Pardini (who joined the band in 2009) played a major role, also as a singer, but more as a substitute for Lamm. The drummer Tris Imboden (joined in 1990) was powerful as Daniel Seraphine in the original setting. He was supplemented by the biggest innovation in current Chicago: a percussionist. Walfredo Reyes Jr., was fabulous and some of the most exciting moments included his solos. The guitarist, Keith Howland (joined in 1995), spent much time upfront creating fiery solos, without copying the original guitarist Terry Kath (who accidentally shot himself in 1978 – what an American way to go). We also heard big hits, such as ‘If You Leave Me Now,’ performed by the bassist Jason Scheff, who channeled Peter Cetera almost perfectly both on vocals and the bass guitar. To me, a much more important ballad was ‘Color My World’ sung by Lee Loughnane and featuring Walter Parazaider’s classic flute solo, which all of us aspiring jazz and rock flutists at the time emulated. The two-hour concert ended with two of the band’s biggest hits from the early period, ‘I’m a Man’ and ’25 or 6 to 4.’ Needless to say, the multitude in the audience went crazy.

As if by some divine intervention, the rain had held itself throughout the concert, but at the moment the music ended the skies broke into a torrential downpour soaking us as we walked out of the park. It was futile even to try to stay dry as the paths and the roads soon turned into ankle-deep wildly flowing streams.

Once I get started it’s hard to stop. My jazz summer continued well into September. No more concerts by big visiting names, but there is local jazz talent who can attract a decent crowd to some of the locales around town. On the day after the Chicago concert, I ventured into Columbia Station, a long-standing club on 18th Street up in Adams Morgan and enjoyed a couple of sets of modern quartet jazz led by Knute, a local tenor sax player. 

A couple of weeks later, on September 24th my regular neighborhood haunt Acacia Bistro hosted a jazz marathon with several local bands. My choice was to listen to Jordon Dixon, a solid tenor saxophonist playing very good post-bop backed by a guitar, bass and drums trio. I had never seen my favorite neighborhood joint so packed.

By now the summer is but a memory and it is hard to imagine the heat as the cold winter winds chill one’s bones. But although the summer is gone, the music remains. Washington, DC may not be New York and one has to make more of an effort to find music, it still is a fine city.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Chick Corea - The Leprechaun at 75

Last June Chick Corea turned 75 and the famous Blue Note club in New York is celebrating the prominent composer, pianist, band leader with a series of nightly concerts between October 19 and December 11. On November 6, as I had meetings in New York the following days, I decided to go one day early and took the Delta Shuttle from the Washington Reagan National airport to La Guardia on the Sunday afternoon with barely time to stop by my Midtown hotel, take the 6 train down to the Village and walk over to the West Side to meet my friend Alan and his kids Emma and Ian at the club. We arrived early to secure good seats at the bar from where we would have an unobstructed view of the stage.

The Chick Corea series at the Blue Note celebrates the many faces of Chick Corea and features a broad cross section of the different combos he’s led and played with, including his famous Elektric Band, acoustic quartets and quintets, piano duets with Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, two evenings with Gary Burton and the Harlem String Quartet, another two evenings with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, an evening with John McLaughlin (his partner from Miles’ Bitches Brew album), ending with four nights of Return to Forever meets Mahavishnu. Corea’s versatility and scope are indeed amazing.

 Over the past few decades I’ve caught Corea in various formats, starting with his 1970s performance at the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland with the original Return to Forever band. This was pure magic to me. Corea had previously worked with Miles Davis on a number of electric albums, which were path breaking in their hypnotic psychedelia. He had also made his own music in a more traditional piano trio format (his 1968 Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, featuring Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous, was a breakthrough). But the new band was something entirely different, something that no-one else had done before. It featured Corea on a Fender Rhodes, Joe Farrell on the flute and soprano sax, Stanley Clarke on bass and Airto Moreira on drums and percussion. Their regular singer, Airto’s wife, Flora Purim had just had a baby and was replaced by a less impressive male singer, but this hardly mattered. The band played music from their eponymously titled first album, which I had recently purchased and had hardly listened to anything else since then. Stanley Clarke was barely out of his teens then, but his work on the big bass was amazing and his interplay with Airto – unusually behind a regular drum kit beating a flat ride cymbal – made the music soar light as a feather (the title of their yet-to-come second album). I was just a kid, sitting on the floor in front of the stage in Pori Theater, and I was totally mesmerized (I can still remember the feeling). I could not imagine anything more beautiful than the ringing sounds of the flute and the Rhodes conjuring exotic soundscapes.

The last time I saw and heard Chick before this latest night was a couple of years ago at New York City’s Highline Ballroom, that time with an acoustic trio featuring Brian Blake and Christian McBride. This more conventional setting was anything but, as the three innovators created new music on old instruments. I was also there one night for the master’s 70th birthday celebration, also at the Blue Note. That evening the band featured Hubert Laws, the amazing flautist who was one of my greatest idols in my teen years.

This time it was the Leprechaun Band, named after the 1976 album. The band featured two other legends in addition to the maestro: Eddie Gomez on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. They had a frontline of three horns: Steve Wilson, Michael Rodriguez and Steve Davis. As per the commemorative program booklet, the evening found them “reimagining the game-changing music from The Leprechaun, My Spanish Heart and The Mad Hatter.” These three were among my all-time favorite Corea albums (although it’s hard to say, as most of them are excellent). Chick himself was in superb form alternating between acoustic and electric pianos and synthesizers (no Rhodes, though). He remains as boyish as ever and it would be hard to believe him to be his age.

Apart from his trombone, Steve Davis was in charge of the horn section, which worked together perfectly. Michael Rodriguez played crisp trumpet, although there was a debate between Alan and Ian about the merit of his solos, with the son defending Rodriguez’ work against some skepticism from his father. No-one could disagree, however, that some of the most beautiful solos were produced by Steve Wilson. Again, I was enthralled by his flute work. Where does Corea find all these stunning flutists? As a flute player myself, I have always appreciated the prominence Chick Corea gives to the instrument in his compositions.

Some of the most memorable pieces included ‘Friends’ from The Mad Hatter and ‘Reverie,’ a ballad that featured a gorgeous alto sax lead by Steve Wilson and beautiful unison work by the three horns. The set ended with a rendition of Pino Daniele’s ‘Sicily.’ This was a lovely homage to the wonderful Italian musician, composer and singer who passed away only last year at the age of 59. Needless to say, the audience that packed the Blue Note did not relent before an encore. And we got an incredible treat: ‘Spain’ as a duet between Chick and Steve Gadd. This, perhaps the most famous composition by Chick Corea, now performed only on grand piano and drums sent us to the cold New York City night radiating heat from the inside.

Monday, July 4, 2016

A wonderful and learned book about the Sundarbans

The Hungry TideThe Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OK, so this is one of the best books I've every read. So, now I've said it. It's also the fourth I've read by Amitav Ghosh who has by now become one my favorite authors.

The Hungry Tide takes place in the Sundarbans, a vast river system with endless mangroves in the southern part of the Indian state of West Bengal. Moving between the 1970s and the present, Ghosh tells a compelling tale of the place, its people who are some of the poorest in India subsiding on small-scale fisheries, the natural system dependent on the strong tides prevalent in the area, and the tropical cyclones that destroy the island settlements at regular intervals. At the heart are the story of an illegal Bangladeshi refugee settlement in one of the islands, the official efforts to get rid of it, and the conflict between poor people and conservation in this land of man-eating tigers and riverine dolphins. The story, told from the contrasting perspectives of a New Delhi man of letters, a young American-Indian cetologist, an elderly social activist and her late revolutionary husband, and fisherfolks on the islands, is fascinating and absorbing. And most of the setting is based on historical facts with accurate depictions of the social and natural dynamics. Amitav Ghosh, who holds a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford, has done thorough research and knows what he is writing about. Apart from that, his characters are multidimensional and one can understand their differing viewpoints.

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Friday, June 3, 2016

Progress and challenges to evaluate environmental and climate change policies

Keynote speech at the Seminar on Implementing Climate Change Policy Evaluation National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change (INECC), Mexico, May 25, 2016 Progress and challenges to evaluate environmental and climate change policies - Dr. Juha I. Uitto, Director, Independent Evaluation Office of the Global Environment Facility
Ladies and gentlemen, It is a great honor to have been invited as keynote speaker to this impressive gathering on Implementing Climate Change Policy Evaluation. Needless to say, this topic is very close to my heart. It is also a pleasure to attend this conference in the fascinating and bustling Ciudad de Mexico. Climate change is one of the most complex contemporary challenges facing humankind. Its complexity stems from the fact that it is linked with virtually all sectors and areas of human activity. Addressing climate change is therefore not only a matter of technological solutions or dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change calls for integrated solutions that encompass the social, economic and political alongside the environmental and technical. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the associated Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN member states in September 2015 recognize this . The SDGs all take a holistic approach incorporating the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development. The Global Environment Facility has mapped its work on climate change against the SDGs. While the SDG 13 is explicitly concerned with climate action, our work on climate change is also relevant to several other goals, which have direct linkages to societal factors, including goal 5 (Gender Equality), 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) and 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) . Unlike their predecessor Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs are universally applicable to all countries. Also unlike the MDGs, evaluation has been built into the SDGs, which goes beyond monitoring and indicators. Evaluation can help countries and the international community to understand why progress towards the achievement of the goals is taking place or what are the hindrances along the way. There is a need to mobilize national data systems and to set up M&E that enable reporting on the SDGs and that at the same time serve national needs and perspectives. Mexico is a large country with a great variability of situations when it comes to geography and natural conditions, as well as levels of economic development. Mexico’s development has been rapid and it is now an advanced industrialized country. The UN analyses place Mexico in the high human development category . As everywhere, such rapid industrialization and economic development puts strains on the environment. Mexico is in the top dozen countries in the world when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Population and income growth, as well as urban sprawl and reliance on private automobiles all contribute to the growth in emissions. OECD recognizes the efforts made in the recent years in giving high political priority to battling climate change and protecting the environment . This event is proof of that and focuses on the important topic of the role of evaluation in ensuring that policies tackling climate change are effective.
Evaluation of climate change responses faces specific challenges. Some are generic to the environmental arena , while others pertain to the very nature of climate change. Basic issues pertaining to evaluating environmental actions in general include the fact that environmental phenomena tend to involve long time horizons. The projects and programs we set up are usually time-bound. They may set in motion processes that we hope will lead to environmental outcomes at a later stage, but this often happens only long after the project is gone. Similarly, environmental phenomena often have different geographical scales than the human systems within which we operate. Watersheds cross jurisdictional boundaries – often even international borders; water both above and below ground flows across human set administrative units; fish and wildlife do not care about jurisdictional boundaries; pollution is carried by rivers and, especially, by air from one place to another often across long distances. Climate is typically a global common . It is influenced by anthropogenic factors, which are localized, but the effects are global. Economic activities – energy use, transport, industry, agriculture, deforestation – that cause climate change bring profits to those engaging in them, at least in the short term. Sadly, the brunt of the costs of climate change accrue primarily to the poor countries and poor people who contributed little to the problem in the first place. These factors – long time horizons, differing geographical scales, impacts occurring in places other than the sources – all complicate evaluation of environmental phenomena. Climate change has added further complications to these issues because of the uncertainties associated with it. Even the best climate models are unable to accurately predict what will happen and the lower one gets on geographical scale the larger the uncertainties. There are discontinuities and tipping points, but we cannot be sure where they are. The Paris Agreement that has just recently been ratified by countries set the limit of warming at 2oC beyond which scientists believe the consequences will be uncertain. The frequently used shorthand, global warming, is misleading, as climate change appears to lead to increased variability in weather and different effects in different geographical areas. About half of Mexico’s territory is either desert or semi-desert with very limited freshwater resources. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that warming in the high mountain areas could lead to less snow and ice, which could affect river flows and subsequently further reduce water availability . IPCC further predicts, with high confidence, that increased temperatures will reduce crop yields, including those of maize and wheat, by shortening the crop cycle. These are significant risks. Therefore, climate change policies and programs – as well as their evaluation – must deal explicitly with risk and uncertainty . These challenges are further exacerbated by data and information gaps. As multiple factors contribute to climate change, it is also difficult to isolate the effects of particular interventions. We may try to curb emissions from transport or industry, or stop deforestation and transformation of forests into pastures for cattle, all of which will make contributions towards the fight against climate change. But can we really attribute any observed changes in climate to these programs? This is definitely hard, especially given that the actions to mitigate climate change are dwarfed by the environmentally destructive practices. The 5th Overall Performance Study of the GEF brought this into focus . While the total funding to global environmental issues is estimated at US$10 billion per year (of which the GEF stands for about US$1 billion), the needs would be in the range of US$100 billion. On the other hand, just subsidies to environmentally destructive practices – including fossil fuels and industrial agriculture – amount to some US$1 trillion annually. This does not mean that attempts to control emissions through policies, programs and projects is futile. On the contrary, we need to do it and continue intensifying our efforts. What it means, though, is that we also must strengthen our M&E systems and our evaluation approaches so that we know better whether our efforts are effective and that we are able to learn from the past and focus our work on those approaches that have greatest potential. My office, the Independent Evaluation Office of the GEF, conducted an impact evaluation of climate mitigation projects funded by the GEF a couple of years ago . Mexico was one of the four countries covered in the evaluation because the major emerging market economies are particularly important for the climate change mitigation potential. The evaluation found that the projects that were particularly successful in demonstrating progress towards impact were those, which had adopted comprehensive approaches to address market barriers and specifically targeted supportive policy frameworks.
So how can evaluators address such daunting challenges? I believe there are major opportunities and solutions but we have to strengthen the approaches and methodologies we use. Theory-based approaches to evaluation will still be useful, but they must be sensitive to the fact that linear models of causality may not be valid. We need to start by understanding the system boundaries, the components of the system, their relationships and the emergent properties when we design our evaluations . How do we do that? In the first place, it is important to be aware of what science tells us, so a good evaluation should start by a review of pertinent scientific literature on the topic. Based on this understanding, we can construct the theory of change that will serve as a hypothesis of how causality works in the particular context of the evaluand at hand. This hypothesis is then to be tested and the theory of change updated as needed in light of data and as our understanding of the evaluand increases. We also must use our data collection and analysis methods based on the questions that we pose and the situation in which we evaluate. The form must follow function. Some evaluators and researchers believe that only experimental and quasi-experimental methods, such as randomized control trials, yield reliable evaluative evidence. This is a fallacy. Such quantitative methods have their place in evaluation, but their applicability is limited. They can best be used in evaluating narrow interventions where counterfactuals and control groups can be identified in a clear manner. Even in medicine, RCTs are used only as one step in a rigorous and extensive research and testing process. Similarly, in sustainable development evaluation they can only be part of the solution and a relatively small at that. We need to employ a variety of methods, both quantitative and qualitative, to address the complex issues related to climate change. And I come back to the need for integrated, holistic perspectives. It is not possible to evaluate climate change in isolation focusing only on mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. We must deal with the drivers of climate change and environmental degradation. Issues such as urbanization and population growth, land use change, deforestation and carbon sequestration are key factors driving climate change and we must therefore focus on them. These in turn have close linkages to societal factors, such as economic and social development, poverty, inequality, politics and power relations. Climate change is inherently political and economic. All interventions, whether policies, programs or projects, must operate in the political and economic arena. Similarly, evaluations must be cognizant about and deal with these issues as well. Most often, the interventions operate at the level of addressing societal issues, developing policies, creating incentives or disincentives that we hope will lead to more sustainable behaviors, influencing consumption and production patterns. Evaluation must thus focus on these intermediate outcomes to help understand the intended and unintended consequences of our actions. We must use evaluation to learn from past efforts what works, through which mechanisms, why, and under what circumstances. At the same time, we must keep our eye on the ball, never to forget that our ultimate goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and to stabilize climate change. Too many policies, programs and projects have done what they set out to do, reached their objectives, but barely made a dent in the big picture. Evaluators have the responsibility to look beyond outputs of individual interventions to determine whether they are making a difference, contributing to our ultimate goal. As I mentioned earlier, climate change impacts vary by geography. But they also affect different groups of people in different ways. It is a fair statement to say that poor people are generally more vulnerable to climate change impacts than the wealthy people. Their choices and ability to cope with climate impacts are limited. They have a harder time to bounce back after a major storm destroys their property or a prolonged drought causes a crop failure. There are pockets of highly vulnerable groups in Mexico, notably those living in isolated rural communities depending on traditional agriculture in places like Chiapas, but also in central Mexico not too far from here . As mentioned earlier, climate change is affecting crop productivity and water availability and, thus, directly their livelihoods and wellbeing. Furthermore, coastal areas in places as varied as Quintana Roo, Veracruz, Tabasco and Guerrero are at risk from coastal inundation, saltwater intrusion and tropical cyclones. We must not deal only with climate change mitigation, but importantly with adaptation. This was recognized in the Climate Change COP and the Paris Agreement for the first time gives equal weight to the need to adapt to climate change impacts. In practice, this means reducing the vulnerability and increasing resilience of people and infrastructure to climate change, including more frequent natural disasters, such as intensified coastal storms and increased weather variability. Evaluation approaches in adaptation are still being developed and our knowledge of this aspect is somewhat behind that of evaluating climate change mitigation. It is, however, important to recognize that evaluating adaptation places us firmly in the realm of human systems and the social, economic and political spheres. As we evaluate actions that are intended to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience, we must again take an integrated and holistic view that encompasses both natural and human systems. We have choices in the ways we seek to enhance resilience. For example, we may decide to build a seawall to protect a community against storm surges and sea level rise. Or we may decide to restore the coastal mangroves that provide a natural protection against the sea, while also acting as spawning grounds for fish and crustaceans, and providing ecosystem services for example by way of water purification. These choices have consequences for the coastal communities and their livelihoods. Evaluators should be able to assess the benefits and risks and the long term sustainability of such choices and to inform policy. The focus of this seminar is on evaluation of climate change policy. Policy evaluation always entails uncertainty and I would argue that this uncertainty is increased further by climate change. In all cases, policy effects are long term and complex. They depend on multiple intervening factors, as no policy takes place in a vacuum. Many of the intervening factors are beyond the control of policymakers. They include economic factors that may depend on developments in the global economy. Technological and scientific advances can make policies obsolete or irrelevant. And natural factors, such as a catastrophic storm or weather-related event may overwhelm the policy-responses. Again, climate change adds risk and uncertainty to the policy. Policies are also only as good as how well and consistently they are implemented. We need regulatory frameworks and legislation that is enforced for policy to be implemented. Another factor is the predictability of policy. In democratic systems where the political pendulum may swing significantly following an election, the new government may attempt to reverse policy. These factors again highlight the need for climate change evaluators to look at the phenomena in an integrated and holistic manner focusing on the effectiveness of policy implementation and the longer term consistency. Are policies relevant and effective in addressing the drivers of climate change? Are they relevant and effective for reducing vulnerability and building resilience? In order for us to be able to do this, we need to develop robust M&E systems and collect systematic data. But we also need a broad range of rigorous evaluation methodologies and solid theories of change to understand why progress is or isn’t made, and how we can improve future policies and performance. Evaluative evidence of this kind is essential for Mexico and all other countries to make informed choices in the fight against climate change. It also serves the dual purpose of being able to assess and report back on the achievement of the SDGs. Thank you.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The China Collectors: America's Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art TreasuresThe China Collectors: America's Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures by Karl E. Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a thoroughly fascinating book about Chinese art -- and more about men and women from America and Europe who collected it (sometimes through looting, especially in the early times) and brought it to collections and museums in the United States. We read about the adventurers, diplomats, curators and others who entered China a century ago and discovered Chinese art that was not recognized in the West. Famous collectors, like J.P. Morgan, Charles Lang Freer and the Rockefellers play important roles, as do Chinese counterparts and suppliers of art like C.T. Loo. We learn about how major museums in Boston, New York, Kansas City, Washington, DC, and elsewhere -- developed what now constitute major collections of Chinese and other Asian art. We also learn about how the Freer Gallery, and later its pair the Sackler Gallery, on the National Mall came about (one of the most entertaining chapters focuses on the life of Arthur M. Sackler). All of this placed in an historical context: the two World Wars, the Great Depression, and naturally Mao's revolution in China all greatly influenced the collecting of Chinese art by Westerners and the commercial and cultural exchanges more broadly.

I took a long time reading this book. Partly, it was because I didn't always find the appropriate time to focus on the book (instead, I found myself reading a number of novels in between). Partly it was because I often felt the need to look up particular cultural periods or art works in a reference volume (for this I used Michael Sullivan's gorgeous The Arts of China, Fourth Edition). But partly it was also that some of the book was a bit tedious. In particular, I found the early parts of the book on the Boston Brahmins and Harvard in the late-1800s a tad unnecessarily detailed. Overall, I found that the book was somewhat uneven.

To me the most interesting parts were in the second half and concerned events after WWII. We were there introduced to a number of colorful characters, such as Sackler, Baron Eduard von der Heydt and the former president of the Olympic Committee Avery Brundage. The book ends with current events in China, which has experienced an enormous art boom in recent years and the construction of more than 3,800 museums in the 2010s alone. Chinese art auction houses have also become equal to the Sotheby's and Christie's. In China's new Gilded Age, nouveau riche collectors pay millions of dollars for art, while forgery thrives. The China Poly Group Corporation, owned by the People's Liberation Army, is the largest of the auction houses and aims to become number one in the world. The book ends with a cautiously optimistic note about fruitful exchanges between China and the US, and the development of art in China (including through such mega stars as Ai Weiwei and Zhang Xiaogang), while noting that the Communist Party in China still wants to control how history is written and understood.

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