Denise Mauzerall arrived in Beijing this year at a time that was both horrifying and illuminating. The capital was facing some of its worst pollution in recent memory and Mauzerall, a Princeton environmental engineering professor, was passing through on her way to a university forum on the future of cities.
"I took the fast train from Beijing to Shanghai, and looking out the window for large sections of that trip you couldn't see more than 20 feet," Mauzerall recalled.
To Mauzerall, the lesson was both surprising and inescapable.
"This air pollution problem is on the scale of eastern China," she said. "It's definitely not just a Beijing problem. It's a national problem and it needs a national solution."
Earlier this week, state-run China Daily called most of China's major cities "barely suitable for living." Such unusually blunt language from the Chinese government's English-language mouthpiece is a sign of just how bad conditions have become.
'As Long As There Is Political Willingness..."
Tong Zhu, a top air pollution specialist who teaches at both Princeton and Beijing universities, says the solutions to the problem are no secret, and ultimately depend on political leadership.
"There is technology available," Zhu told me earlier this year over dinner at the Princeton-Fung Global Forum in Shanghai. "I think as long as there is political willingness, the environmental situation can be drastically improved."
This is may be the best news I've heard about air pollution since I first lived in China 16 years ago. The nation's air problem is profoundly depressing. There were times, even a dozen years back, when I would land at the airport in Beijing, only able to make out the runway 50 feet before we touched down.
Inevitably, I would wonder: Why am I coming back?
As air quality deteriorated, with the exception of the efforts led in part by Zhu during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I joined most Chinese in viewing air pollution as an insoluble problem, an inevitable result of the nation's relentless economic growth.
Although he knows it sounds incredible, Zhu says Beijing has actually done a lot to control pollution over the years. In the 1990s, officials pushed industry out of the city and replaced most coal-burning heating with natural gas.
"The newest fuel emission standards are even higher than some European cities," Zhu says.
The problem is that air doesn't respect borders. Neighboring Hebei province, which rings most of Beijing, is much poorer and less developed. It has lower fuel quality standards and has emphasized the sort of dirty factories Beijing exiled. As a result, when the winds are right, pollution from Hebei's factories, cars and coal-fired power plants can blow into Beijing and help choke the capital.
Since the Communist Party is an authoritarian regime, you might expect it could just force Hebei to change its economic model and clean up its act. In reality, China is highly decentralized politically and provinces often ignore policies from the center.
"We have the impression that the central government controls everything," says Zhu, "but the regional and local governments have a lot of say in how to develop their own economies."
Industrial provinces aren't the only vested interests standing in the way of solving China's air problem. The country's powerful state-owned oil companies have resisted pressure to produce cleaner-burning fuel for years.
"Improving the fuel quality in China is very tricky politically," says Vance Wagner, a senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, an independent research organization.
Most of China still uses high sulfur fuel. That fuel damages catalytic converters, which reduce tail pipe emissions. To cut sulfur content, oil companies here must buy at least $800 million worth of environmental technology, according to Chinese state media.
Energy Companies' Role
When the government needed advice on fuel standards, it turned to experts from China's major state-owned oil company, Sinopec and Petrochina.
"You can imagine that Sinopec and PetroChina have a pretty clear conflict of interest in terms of how aggressively they want to push a new stringent fuel quality standard," says Wagner, who spent more than six years working in China on air pollution.
This is how China's authoritarian capitalism - sometimes praised for its efficiency - can end up in political gridlock. The government, which sets fuel prices, is cautious about raising them and worries about a popular backlash. The oil companies, though highly profitable, still want to keep expenses as low as they can.
Wagner says China's state-owned oil companies serve two masters: the government and shareholders.
"They should feel the responsibility as the entire Chinese government does to improve people's livelihoods and reduce air pollution," Wagner says. "But they also serve the market, and these are publicly-traded companies and so their responsibility is to produce fuel at the cheapest cost possible."
But January's dreadful air pollution led to a breakthrough of sorts.
Sinopec Chairman Fu Chengyu surprised people and took some responsibility for the problem and the government set a dramatically lower national fuel standard that matched those in Europe. Wagner says the new standard essentially removes all sulfur from the fuel and could reduce emissions from 90 to as much as 99 percent.
That's the good news. The bad news: The deadline for implementing that new standard is more than 4 1/2 years away and it isn't clear who will pay for all that clean technology.
In the meantime, vehicle emissions will continue to grow. This year, China's annual auto sales could - for the first time - pass the 20 million mark.
Like a proud father, Nay Aung opens up his MacBook Air to show me the Myanamar travel website he's built. But we wait 30 seconds for the site to load, and nothing happens.
"Today is a particularly bad day for Internet," he says. This is life in Myanmar today: Even an Internet entrepreneur can't always get online.
If Nay could show me his website — Oway.com.mm — I would see a travel site that lets people around the world reserve rooms in small hotels in Myanmar, and book flights to towns that weren't even on the grid a few years ago. He says he's getting about 500 bookings a month right now.
The Internet outage doesn't seem to phase Nay or the dozen staff members in his office.The power was out completely a couple of hours ago, so even a very slow Internet is an improvement.
"Sometimes it's totally out of your control," he says. This is the calm side of Nay Aung, who calls himself a devout Buddhist, and who was born and raised in Myanmar.
But Nay is also a product of the United States. He got his MBA at Stanford and worked for Google in Silicon Valley. He still has his stylish haircut and Ralph Lauren shirts. And this version of Nay Aung was a little more high strung when he came back to Myanmar a year and a half ago.
"When I first got here, it really aggravated me," he says of the challenge of running an Internet company when you can't get reliable Internet.
Nay had always wanted to return, and he saw an opening a few years ago. The government was moving toward more democracy, and Western countries were considering dropping economic sanctions. Nay wanted to be one of the first Internet pioneers in this incredibly poor country.
But being the first means you have to figure out how to build a company when the power goes out all the time. At first, Nay moved around the city with his laptop, working in coffee shops and restaurants where the power was on and the Internet was working. He eventually found the best Internet in Yangon, the capital, at a coffee shop owned by someone with a connection in the government.
He also had to find foreign investors — some of whom didn't know much about Myanmar. "They literally brought in a huge map, and they asked me to point out where Myanmar is."
Nay eventually got his investors. He hired web developers in India and put servers in Singapore. A bigger challenge was getting mom-and-pop hotels in Myanmar to sign up for his site. Many of the hotels don't even have bank accounts," Nay says. They do business only in cash. Nay has to bridge the two worlds.
While I was at the office, I saw an order from Germany come in for six nights at a small hotel in Yangon. The guy who booked the room paid with a credit card on the website; his money went halfway around the world in the blink of an eye.
But the last few miles took considerably longer. To make the reservation, Nay pulled U.S. dollars out of a safe and gave them to a young delivery guy who went outside and took a city bus to the hotel.
At the front desk, the transaction is entered into a three ring binder — just before the lights go out because of a temporary power outage.
This is an installment of NPR's ongoing Cook Your Cupboard, a food series about improvising with what you have on hand. Have a food that has you stumped? Submit a photo and we'll ask chefs about our favorites!
Harrison Gowdy of Dayton, Ohio, has developed a reputation among friends and family of liking everything and wasting nothing.
"Sometimes I'll even find things like Swiss chard dropped off on my doorstep," she says. And sometimes she receives foods that stump her.
To Cook Your Cupboard she submitted a photo of various Indian spices, a gift from her traveling sister; some guava paste from a friend in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and coconut oil.
She discussed these things on Morning Edition with NPR's David Greene and with self-described home cook Mollie Katzen, author of the forthcoming cookbook The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation. Katzen, who specializes in vegetarian cooking, had a few suggestions:
It's a combination of guava pulp and often sugar and pectin. A popular item in Caribbean and Spanish cuisine, "its favorite food companion is cheese," says Katzen — such as Manchego.
What To Do With It:
Take slices of Guava paste and equal parts cheese and wrap in tortilla, phyllo or empanada dough.
Place it between layers of vanilla cake batter and bake.
"Guava plus cheese or guava plus cake: Ticket to popularity," says Katzen. "It's one of those easy things that makes you very impressive."
Spices From India:
Katzen instructs to grind them all up together in a coffee grinder devoted specifically to spices.
What To Do With Them
"Grind them up and call it curry powder," says Katzen.
Or put the spices in a tea ball — and infuse basmati rice with the spices as it cooks.
It's solid at room temperature, but it's not a trans fat, says Katzen. It also has a high smoke point, which basically means it's good for frying if you want your food really crisp.
What To Do With It
Use it as an oil for making popcorn. ("It imparts a very subtle coconut flavor," Katzen says.
Fry the homemade curry powder right in the coconut oil and fry battered vegetables in it.
Bonus Beauty Tip:
Katzen says that if your tamarind pulp has seeds, don't trash them! They can be used for facials. Follow that up with some coconut oil, which, she says, is a great moisturizer for skin and hair.
If you have culinary conundrums, join the Cook Your Cupboard project! Go to npr.org/cupboard and show us a photo. You'll get guidance from fellow home cooks, and you might even be chosen to come on the air with a chef.
In 1991, Kentucky residents Sally Edwards and Lue Hutchinson had sons serving in the Gulf War. Sally Edwards' son, Jack, was a Marine captain. Lue's son, Tom Butts, was a staff sergeant in the Army. The two men never knew each other, but today, their mothers are best friends.
Both soldiers were killed in February of 1991. Jack was 34. "They were the cover for a medical mission. The helicopter lost its top rotor blade, and they didn't make it back," Sally says.
After Lue's son Tom joined the Army in 1979, "he did something absolutely stupid: He learned how to jump out of perfectly good airplanes," she says. "But he loved it," She learned he died the last day of the war. He was 31.
"I worked in Wal-Mart, and we found out the war had ended. I was ecstatic when I went home and came home to a driveway full of cars. Not knowing at that time, until my stepson came out, and told me Tommy was gone," she says.
His death was in the newspaper, and Sally saw it.
"I wanted somebody to talk to because it wasn't like World War II and Vietnam when everybody had a neighbor who'd lost somebody, so I wrote to you. I thought if you responded maybe I'd have somebody that I could talk to about how you felt and how I felt." Sally says.
The letter, Lue says, spoke to her. "Those words 'If you need help and you want to talk, I'm here,' and that's what I needed."
And that's what Sally needed, too, she says, or else she wouldn't have reached out. "The last 22 years would have been hell without you, Lue."
"It would have been hell without you, too," Lue says.
"Because what's in our hearts we share," Sally says.
"When you're the mother and your child dies in that horrific way, the memory gets tolerable but never really, really goes away," Lue says.
"I don't know what I would do if on a bad day, I couldn't pick up and the phone and call you and share it," Sally says.
"Neither could I."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon.
As the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring approaches, commentator Miles Hoffman reminds us that — as earthshaking as that infamous debut was — the composer soon branched out into a variety of musical styles that would surprise his fans and critics.
Hoffman says that, up until the infamous (and riotous) Rite of Spring debut — on May 29, 1913 — the public had never heard anything like it. Still, it can be viewed as the end of an era, as opposed to the start of something new.
"In some ways, The Rite can also be seen as much as a culmination as a revolution," Hoffman says. "It was the culmination of what one music scholar called 'musical maximalism.' Throughout the 19th century, the orchestras were getting bigger and bigger; the power and intensity of unlimited musical expression with orchestral forces had been growing. And with The Rite of Spring, maximalism reached a kind of peak."
Where to go from there? The composer, Hoffman says, went just about anywhere he wanted, stylistically speaking.
"If Stravinsky started out as a revolutionary, it wasn't too long before he became a counterrevolutionary," Hoffman says. For his 1920 ballet Pulcinella, Stravinsky borrowed from music written in the 18th century and gave it a fresh twist. It was a far cry from the jagged rhythms of The Rite.
"This piece ushered in a whole new style, or trend, in 20th-century music," Hoffman says. "It was called neo-classicism. The big forces were stripped down; old musical forms were resurrected and the emphasis shifted to a kind of musical cleanliness. There was clarity, sparkle, pungency, humor, even irony in the music."
It was ironic in the sense that Stravinsky was capable of shaking the heavens. But in Pulcinella and his other neo-classical works — like the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto — he chose small groups of musicians to bring these modest old musical forms to life in a new language. Stravinsky was always remarkably adventurous.
"He went wherever his artistic ideas took him and wherever he thought he could do something good and interesting," Hoffman says. "Later in his life, he even wrote pieces in the so-called 12-tone style pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg."
But is there a unifying Stravinskian trait? Hoffman points to Pablo Picasso for an explanation.
"I think there's a parallel with Stravinsky," Hoffman says. "His style never stayed exactly the same, but there's always something in his music that grabs you. Something that's inescapable. And that's why we still care about Stravinsky. The revolutions, the counterrevolutions, all the categories, all the trends he set, they're all important. But ultimately, they are only important because they were the work of a unique genius."
Miles Hoffman is a violist with the American Chamber players and the author of the NPR Classical Music Companion.