Laptops for Nepali schools

Seven years ago we went trekking with our son Barney and daughter Chloe through the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunaan, China. We marvelled at how as travellers we were able to communicate with the outside world.

The photo below shows Barney with his Blackberry high above the mighty Yangtze River, conferencing ‘on the hoof’ with colleagues in Beijing. The photo opposite of all our mobile communication devices was taken at the Halfway Cafe in the gorge and features in my book ‘Digital Nations in the Making‘, published in 2006, on the uses of technology with adult learners.

Yesterday provided an exciting follow up to all this, as we met up with Chloe and her partner Henry at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road. She had stopped over in London on her way from Seattle to Katmandhu in Nepal, where she plans to set up a technology project with an initial three primary schools.

Fortunately Barney has helped here by arranging for Orbitz Worldwide (NYSE:OWW), the online travel company in Chicago where he works, to donate ten reconditioned Thinkpad laptops. These are ideal for piloting this learning through technology scheme in the high mountains of Helambu.

We ourselves had already transported five of these laptops across from the US two weeks ago and Chloe brought a further five with her.

The Nepali partners in the project will include two of Chloe’s students whom she taught in 1993 at the village school in Shermathang (3,000 m). They now work for local NGOs there and are keen to explore with the schools and children the environmental and sustainability issues which affect upland communities in the Himalayas. The laptops provided by Orbitz Worldwide will be of particular help for the teachers.

The photo above shows Chloe yesterday with her iPad, displaying a picture she had taken 19 years ago of a young girl at the school, sowing seeds brought from the UK. It will be useful as an information resource as they visit the different schools.

There’s plenty to organise for the project like ensuring the children carry out a census in each area and checking that each of the schools has reliable electricity. Internet connectivity is another hurdle to overcome – a problem familiar for adult education bodies in the UK even now.

The challenges facing the project are considerable which is why the New York based Explorers Club – where Chloe is one of the youngest members – has agreed to loan one of its coveted flags for the expedition.

“Does everyone get one”, I asked her. “Oh no”, she replied casually, “you have to put up a good case. Best known perhaps is the flag, which Neil Armstrong took to the moon. He’s one of our members you know.”

The photo opposite shows Chloe and Henry displaying the flag at the Wellcome Collection. If you are interested in finding out more, making a donation for the project or helping in some other way, drop me a note at

Our thanks to the Wellcome Collection and staff for their help and provision of space for us to meet and plan arrangements for the project.

Mass trespasses in Keswick

It’s been good to be reminded this last week of the Kinder mass trespass of 1932, when people from Manchester and Sheffield headed for the Derbyshire hills and successfully asserted a right to walk on the moorland and high hills of this country. I knew Benny Rothman, one of the organisers of the trespass, and with our family joined him and many others to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event in 1982. The photo opposite shows our two young children – now very experienced mountaineers and skiers – on the walk up from the quarry to Kinder Scout.

Benny with some of the other organisers were imprisoned at the time for this, so it is right that they should be recognised as pioneers in opening up the countryside for all and for demanding ‘the freedom to roam’. The 1932 trespass is correctly recognised as being influential in getting the National Parks established in 1948.

What I didn’t know was that a similar action had been taken more than 30 years earlier in the Lake District. My thanks go to Brian Wilkinson from Keswick who has a fascinating letter in today’s Guardian “Latrigg and the early mass trespasses“, where he describes successful trespasses organised by members of the Keswick and District Footpaths Preservation Society in August 1897.

These included walks round part of Derwentwater from Nichol End with about 400 walkers; and on Latrigg above Keswick with up to 2000 supporters. Several ‘worthies’ including Samuel Plimsoll, the MP for Derby and Canon Rawnsley were involved, so this may explain why none of those taken to court in Carlisle received sentences like those involved in the Kinder trespass.

Seattle: the tunnel & the mayor

It will be 1.7 miles long under the heart of downtown Seattle, pass under 158 separate buildings, has been in the planning stages for a decade, will require a payment for each journey undertaken and cost in all, with additional works over $3 billion.

Sounds like a good plan to clear the city of some traffic and pollution and encourage more use of its public transport system? You’d think so, but the building of this 56 feet wide underground tunnel up to 200 feet below the surface has been one of the most contentious projects in the city since settlers first landed at Alki Point in 1852!

At the root of the issue has been the future of the city’s two-storey six-lane Alaskan Way, built in the 1950s, which with adjacent rail tracks dominates the city’s waterfront onto Elliot Bay.

Imagine how the Embarcadero area in San Francisco has changed since this photo below was taken 10 years ago when a major renovation programme was just taking off. Then you can get a idea of what Seattle is now missing and what the waterfront could look like with the Alaskan Way removed.

The Alaskan Way viaduct is an ageing structure, but what brought this to the City’s full attention was the 6.8 Nisqually earthquake in 2001, which left many residents scared and parts of the viaduct seriously weakened as this video clip shows.

The Washington Department of Transport had to carry out urgent repairs but eventually determined that an ‘outside of the box’ solution was needed to confront the city’s transport infrastructure problems. This was to involve the construction of what would become the world’s largest deep bore tunnel, with behind it a new sea wall to hold back the waters of the Puget Sound. After all the delays, a new dawn beckoned!

The snag came when The State House of Representatives decided in 2009 that any costs over $ 1.8 billion would have to be met locally in Seattle. Although the Seattle Port Authority agreed to contribute $300 million for the project and additional monies were to be recouped from users of the tunnel, the issue became highly politicised in April 2009.

Newcomer Michael McGinn, who’d been involved in local campaigning in the city, decided to run for the post of Mayor and fought a successful campaign – in which opposition to the construction of the tunnel was a key element – and was elected.

Just two years later in Feb 2011 when the Seattle City Council voted 8-1 in favour of the tunnel, Mayor McGinn vetoed the decision, only to have his veto overridden by the City Council, again by an 8-1 majority. The Mayor responded by announcing a referendum on the issue, which resulted in a 60% vote in favour of the scheme and a defeat for McGinn. His populist politics had lost the day and the Mayor had now to back down and support the tunnel.

As the story in The New York Times (19 August 2011) last year put it: “the results will be one of the more ambitious public works projects in the country and a remarkable urban transformation.”

In October last year, demolition of the southern end of the Alaskan Way commenced as these photos on flickr show in great detail. It’s good news for Seattle, its residents and its visitors but the story shows too the danger of having an elected Mayor, who may get into a head-on fight with an elected local council.

Voters at next week’s referendums on the issue of electing mayors for some of England’s big cities should think carefully about this experience of costly long delays and political indecision in Seattle, before putting their X in the YES box for having elected mayors!


A Pacific Belvedere

Over in Seattle this last weekend, I couldn’t resist taking this photo opposite, near where our daughter lives. It’s a perfect example of a belvedere platform, constructed to allow walkers on America’s Pacific coast to get a bird’s eye view of the coastline below and the islands and seas beyond. Its shape is also uncannily like the deck area beside our Lakeland Belvedere at The Larches, though a little bit smaller.

It’s built on a track through Discovery Park’s woodlands in West Magnolia, which leads down to the shoreline – where we subsequently walked. The photo below of massive pine driftwood washed up on the strand evokes memories of so much of this beautiful Pacific coastline, where some of the world’s tallest trees are to be found.

Think “Snow falling on cedars” by David Guterson and the subsequent film of this book and you’ll get a sense of this world. It’s a precious environment that needs and receives protection.

The park itself is now managed by Seattle City Council, but parts of it are still used by the army, which was stationing troops there from the 1890s. During WW2 over a million US troops were being trained and transferred from this camp to fight in the Pacific war.

When you are living over here on the Pacific Rim, Japan and other countries in the ‘Far East’ appear much closer than they do from the UK! Seattle is indeed a major US port for trading with these countries and has commonly huge merchant ships crossing Puget Sound on the way west.

You can see an example of this in the photo below of a heavily laden Maersk Line ship, passing the West Point lighthouse, where we walked. Like many others with containers stacked upwards on the decks, they look too top-heavy for my liking to make this the first choice for crossing the Pacific!