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AFP and Tribune Wires

KORIYAMA, Japan — Beneath the elegant curves of the roof on the Seirinji Buddhist temple in Japan’s Fukushima region hangs an unlikely adornment: a Geiger counter collecting real-time radiation readings.
The machine is sending data to Safecast, an NGO born after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster that says it has now built the world’s largest radiation dataset, thanks to the efforts of citizen scientists like Seirinji’s priest Sadamaru Okano.
Like many Japanese, Okano lost faith in the government after the nuclear meltdown seven years ago.
“The government didn’t tell us the truth, they didn’t tell us the true measures,” he told AFP, seated inside the 150-year-old temple.
Okano was in a better position than most to doubt the government line, having developed an amateur interest in nuclear technology two decades earlier after learning about the Chernobyl disaster.
To the bemusement of friends and family, he started measuring local radiation levels in 2007, so when the disaster happened, he had baseline data.
“The readings were so high... 50 times higher than natural radiation,” he said of the post-disaster data.
“I was amazed... the news was telling us there was nothing, the administration was telling us there was nothing to worry about.”
That dearth of trustworthy information was the genesis of Safecast, said co-founder Pieter Franken, who was in Tokyo with his family when the disaster hit.
Franken and several friends had the idea of gathering data by attaching Geiger counters to cars and driving around.
“Like how Google does Street View, we could do something for radiation in the same way,” he said.
“The only problem was that the system to do that didn’t exist and the only way to solve that problem was to go and build it ourselves. So that’s what we did.”
Making informed choices
Within a week, the group had a prototype and began getting readings that suggested the 20 kilometre (12 mile) exclusion zone declared around the Fukushima plant had no basis in the data, Franken said.
“Evacuees were sent from areas with lower radiation to areas with higher radiation” in some cases, he said.
The zone was eventually redrawn, but for many local residents it was too late to restore trust in the government.
Okano evacuated his mother, wife and son while he stayed with his flock.
But a year later, based on his own readings and after decontamination efforts, he brought them back.
He learned about Safecast’s efforts and in 2013 installed one of their static counters on his temple, in part to help reassure worshippers.
“I told them: we are measuring the radiation on a daily basis... so if you access the (Safecast) website you can choose (if you think) it’s safe or not.”
Forty kilometres away, in the town of Koriyama, Norio Watanabe was supervising patiently as his giggling teenage pupils attempted to build basic versions of Safecast’s Geiger counter.
Dressed in blazers and tartan skirts, the girls pored over instructions on where to place diodes and wires.
Watanabe has been a Safecast volunteer since 2011, and has a mobile Geiger counter in his car.
In the days after the disaster evacuees flocked to Koriyama, which was outside the evacuation zone, and he assumed his town was safe.
“But after I started to do the measurements, I realised there was a high level of risk here as well,” he said.
‘You can’t ignore it’
He sent his children away, but stayed behind to look after his mother, a decision he believes may have contributed to his 2015 diagnosis with thyroid cancer.
“|As a scientist, I think the chance that it was caused by the Fukushima accident might be 50-50, but in my heart, I think it was likely the cause,” he said.
His thyroid was removed and he is now healthy, but Watanabe worries about his students, who he fears “will carry risk with them for the rest of their lives.”
“If there are no people like me who continue to monitor the levels, it will be forgotten.”
Safecast now has around 3,000 devices worldwide and data from 90 countries. Its counters come as a kit that volunteers can buy through third parties and assemble at home.
Because volunteers choose where they want to measure at random and often overlap, “they validate unknowingly each other’s measurements,” said Franken, and anomalies or exceptions are checked by Safecast staff.
The NGO is now expanding into measuring air pollution, initially mostly in the US city of Los Angeles during a test phase.
Its radiation data is all open source, and has been used to study everything from the effects of fallout on wildlife to how people move around cities, said Franken.
He says Safecast’s data mostly corroborates official measurements, but provides readings that are more relevant to people’s lives.
“Our volunteers decide to measure where their schools are, where their workplaces are, where their houses are.”
And he believes Safecast has helped push Japan’s government to realise that “transparency and being open are very important to create trust.”
“The power of citizen science means that you can’t stop it and also that you can’t ignore it.” 

Mexican regional cuisine drives booming food scene

Monday, 12 March 2018 00:00 Published in Commentary

MEXICO CITY — Sure, every foodie loves tacos and enchiladas. But what about lesser-known Mexican favorites like cochinita pibil, that impossibly flavorful, slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatan peninsula? Or escamoles, the ant larvae from central Mexico known as “insect caviar”? Embraced by top chefs, the country’s richly varied regional cuisine is driving the Mexican gastronomic experience to a whole new level.
Mexico has always been a major player on the world food scene. But increasingly, top chefs are embracing and promoting the country’s richly varied regional cuisine, driving the Mexican gastronomic experience to a whole new level.
One of the poster boys for the trend is Alejandro Ruiz, whose Mexico City restaurant Guzina Oaxaca drew a rave review in The New York Times with its “chic interpretations of traditional classics.”
Ruiz comes from the village of La Raya in the southern state of Oaxaca, where he grew up grinding corn and cooking for his family to help his mother, who worked full-time washing clothes.
His restaurant, which opened in 2014, is a celebration of his home state, a mountainous region known for its huge diversity of ingredients and deep culinary traditions.
“Where I come from, the kitchen is the most important part of the home,” Ruiz told AFP.
“What I do (in the kitchen) is who I am, it’s where I was born, it’s my mother’s milk. It’s in my DNA. What’s my identity? Oaxaca.”
‘Whole other level of flavour’
Oaxaca isn’t the only region whose traditional cuisine has been elevated to new levels of chic.
Mexico stretches from the deserts of the northern border to the tropical forests of the south, with long Caribbean and Pacific coastlines in between, giving it immense biodiversity and a sprawling palette of ingredients.
Its flavors are also shaped by its complex history, blending influences from its many indigenous groups, the Spanish conquistadors, European elites, slaves from Africa, immigrants from all over and the ever-present United States.
Laura Siciliano-Rosen, co-founder of the food blog Eat Your World, loses count listing her culinary adventures in Mexico’s myriad regions and sub-regions.
Dining in Mexico, she says, one minute you can be eating sinfully delicious tacos. Then, a few hours by bus - or a few Mexico City blocks or market stands away - “suddenly you’re eating turkey and hardboiled eggs and these really rich pastes, ‘recados,’ from the Yucatan peninsula, which is just a whole other level of flavor that only exists there.”
Mexican food’s strength is its “regionality,” she says — something that is only just starting to be exported abroad.
“The more people are learning about the regionality of the cuisine and how distinct and complex it is, the more they’re blown away, like ‘Wow, this is real Mexican food,’” she says.
Peruvian fusion, mexican diversity
William Drew, of the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, says this is exactly what has propelled Mexican restaurants onto the closely watched ranking.
“The diversity is extraordinary,” he says.
“If you think you know what Mexican cuisine is, then you probably haven’t experienced enough of it.”
Mexico has two restaurants in the current top 50, which remains dominated by Europe: Enrique Olvera’s Pujol and Jorge Vallejo’s Quintonil, both in Mexico City.
But Mexico’s top chefs are nervously eying their colleagues to south, in Peru - whose fusion-fueled cuisine makes it a rival contender for the title of Latin America’s hottest food destination.
Peru’s mix of Andean, European and Asian influences - symbolized in recipes like “ceviche,” a refreshing dish of raw fish marinated in lime - has made its cuisine all the rage.
In fact, Peru has two spots on Restaurant’s current top 10: Virgilio Martinez’s Central at number five, and Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Maido at number eight.
The top Mexican restaurant, Pujol, comes in at 20.
Street food
That is making some people in Mexico nervous.
Mauricio Avila works at the Mexican culture ministry, and his job is to compile and preserve Mexico’s gastronomic heritage.
“Mexicans love food, and we’re proud of our food, but we don’t advertise it. We’ve always believed it wasn’t fancy enough for foreigners,” he says.
His office is actively encouraging the trend of celebrating Mexico’s traditional regional cuisines.
The government has released a 78-volume collection on “Indigenous and Popular Cuisine” - each dedicated to a place, an ingredient or an ethnic group. It is also working on an index of ingredients.
Sasha Correa, a Venezuelan gastronomy expert at Spain’s renowned Basque Culinary Center, says Mexico has an allure all its own.
“In a short time, Mexico has not only joined the phenomenon (of high-end dining in Latin America), it has done it with force, personality and a lot of distinctive elements,” she says.
And pity the misguided foodie who travels to Mexico City and only eats in trendy restaurants, when it is bursting with amazing food at nearly every street corner.
“An ideal trip to Mexico City is doing a mix” of the two, says blogger Siciliano-Rosen.
“But if you can’t do the high-end, just do the low-end 100 per cent, because there’s so much variety, it’s so accessible, and you can try anything and it’s all going to be good.” 

US, China agree to keep pressure on North Korea

Sunday, 11 March 2018 00:00 Published in Headlines

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump yesterday enlisted the help of China’s Xi Jinping to keep sanctions pressure on North Korea, amid fears that an audacious diplomatic gambit by the US president could lead to backsliding.
In an evening tweet, Trump praised a possible future agreement with the communist North as “very good” for the international community as a whole, after the US leader stunned the world by accepting an invitation to meet Kim Jong Un before the end of May.
“The deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the World. Time and place to be determined,” Trump wrote.
During a telephone conversation, Trump and the ever-more-powerful Chinese president committed to “maintain pressure and sanctions until North Korea takes tangible steps toward complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” according to the White House.
As aides scrambled to catch up with Trump’s decision — taken before consulting key confidantes — the White House sent mixed messages about conditions.
“They’ve made promises to denuclearize, they’ve made promises to stop nuclear and missile testing,” White House spokesman Sarah Sanders said.
“We’re not going to have this meeting take place until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea,” she told reporters.
Officials behind the scenes said this did not constitute a change of heart. A day after the bombshell announcement that the US and North Korean leaders would meet, Vice President Mike Pence said the White House would keep “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang and claimed US efforts to isolate Kim had been vindicated.

There has been limited reaction from Kim’s regime, but South Korean President Moon Jae-in said news of the summit — announced by his national security adviser on a visit to Washington — was “like a miracle.”
For his part, Xi urged the two leaders to begin talks as “soon as possible” and praised Trump’s “positive aspiration.”
China has long been North Korea’s most important ally but has been on board with the sanctions agreed at the United Nations.
A cryptic report by South Korean news agency Yonhap said the South’s envoys also delivered a “special message” to Trump from Kim during their US trip, but did not elaborate on what was said.
The UN Security Council has imposed tough economic sanctions aimed at choking off revenue to Pyongyang’s military programs after Kim’s regime carried out a sixth nuclear test and advanced missile launches.
China and Russia argue that sanctions alone will not push North Korea to change course and have repeatedly called for stepping up diplomatic efforts to achieve a solution.
The summit announcement triggered a rise in global stock markets while world leaders voiced hope the meeting would deflate tensions that had been building dramatically in recent months.
Some observers questioned the US president’s wisdom in granting Kim a long-standing wish for a meeting after only agreeing to temporarily halt nuclear tests.
Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who has negotiated with and traveled to the North, told AFP it was a bold move that is “worth taking” but also a “huge gamble.”
“This is not ‘The Apprentice’ or a reality TV event... It’s a negotiation with an unpredictable leader who has at least 20 nuclear weapons and who threatens the United States,” he said.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner said America’s approach to North Korea still needs not just a drop “but a whole bucket of reality.”
“There is no greater diplomatic tool or lever than the President of the United States,” he added. “If this doesn’t succeed how much is left of that diplomatic runway is a very good question.”
Trump has previously ridiculed Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” imposing wide-ranging bilateral sanctions on the Pyongyang regime and also leading a drive for international sanctions through the UN. Pyongyang has hit back by calling Trump a “dotard.”
Pence stressed that the White House has made “zero concessions” to get Kim to the table and emphasized that the sanctions would remain in place.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among the world leaders to hail the announcement as a “glimmer of hope,” saying North Korea’s nuclear drive “has been a source of great concern for all of us.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, voiced hope the summit would produce “concrete progress” and a resumption of long-suspended nuclear inspections.
Pyongyang’s long race to develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States has proved a problem for successive US administrations.
But the alarm bells have been ringing even louder since July, when Pyongyang conducted two intercontinental ballistic missile tests, declaring the entire United States now within range.
Trump threatened “fire and fury” if Pyongyang continued to threaten the United States, only for North Korea to carry out its sixth nuclear test.
The US and North Korea fought on opposite sides of a war in the 1950s, and in the last two decades have been engaged in perhaps the world’s most dangerous nuclear standoff, with 30,000 US military personnel stationed just over the border in the South. 






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