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The Ancient Walled Gardens Designed to Nurture a Single Citrus Tree

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A windswept speck of land in the Mediterranean boasts a unique innovation found nowhere else on earth: a circular garden wall that creates its own nano-climate. But this invention isn't new: It dates back over a thousand years.

The remote Italian island of Pantelleria is so far from the rest of Italy that it's actually closer to Africa. On a clear day, you can even see the coast of Tunisia from the island's lofty volcanic peak.

Pantelleria has a hypnotic beauty that entrances the few travelers who reach its shores: Ancient mule tracks wend through patchwork vineyards dotted with crumbling ruins, while passing cars are so rare that hard-working farmers wave at every one. In all directions, wherever you look, the denim-blue sea sparkles.

The main challenge faced by Pantelleria’s 7,000 inhabitants, aside from the isolation that sequesters them from the outside world, is the weather: The island is constantly battered by winds, but rarely sees any rain. The soil is dry and full of volcanic rock.

How to eke out a living in such a place? For thousands of years, different groups have done so during different periods. But at some much-debated point, Pantellerians devised an ingenious garden design now known as the giardino Pantesco: Italian for "Pantellerian garden." What makes these enclosures extraordinary is that each giardino Pantesco was built, with months of backbreaking labor, not to nourish rows of vegetables, but instead to protect a single sprout: the sapling of a lone lemon or orange tree.

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"Of all agricultural systems, no other architecture involves so much work to grow a single tree," notes Giuseppe Barbera, Professor of Arboriculture at the University of Palermo and one of the world's few experts on Pantellerian gardens.

"The enclosed tree is a citrus—usually an orange or a lemon—that otherwise couldn't grow on the island without the protecting wall," Barbera adds. "Pantelleria’s windy, arid climate and the total absence of fresh groundwater wouldn’t otherwise allow trees like these to live."

Giardini Panteschi are almost always circular, and are precisely calibrated to have walls of a specific height: tall enough to block the wind, but short enough to allow in as much sun as possible. For as long as anyone can remember, farmers have expertly employed an age-old construction technique called muro a secco. Without using any mortar, they stack basketball-sized boulders freehand to form five-foot-thick walls that curve to encircle an enclosure 30 feet in diameter. They leave a single small opening through which the builder can crawl.

"The Pantescan farmer tore the stones from the ground with his bare hands, and used them to construct garden walls," says local vintner and retired politician Calogero Mannino.

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The top of the circular wall always slopes inward, so the crevices of the volcanic rock catch morning dew and atmospheric condensation, which then drips onto the soil—even on otherwise dry days.

At the center of all this, the farmer plants just one seed in hopes of eventually growing a full-size citrus tree, which he then allows to branch outward in all directions and fill the whole space with several trunks (unlike the more familiar practice in modern citrus orchards of pruning away all side-shoots to produce a tree with a single central trunk).

The end result of all this labor is a new ecosystem within the wall's embrace, where the tree experiences temperatures measurably cooler on hot days and warmer on cold nights, an effect confirmed by ongoing studies. "The research has shown the importance of dew condensation on the garden walls, which reaches considerable quantities because of the atmospheric humidity and the porosity of the rocks that increases the surface area,” says Barbera, who is monitoring climatic data being collected at the best-preserved giardino. “This contribution of water is so important that it allows citruses to be cultivated in the total absence of irrigation."

Giardini Panteschi have been described as self-sufficient agronomic systems, because they create a nano-climate that simultaneously waters the tree, protects it from relentless wind, retains any rainwater channeled into the garden under the access door during rare rainstorms, allows in sunlight, and radiates stored solar warmth on cold nights. Once built, it "operates" without any need for further human intervention.

Pantellerians were pioneers in sustainability before there was even a word for it. They did not get stones from some far-off quarry, but instead used rocks dug from the enclosed garden area itself. As Pantelleria sits atop a dormant volcano, the terrain comprises basically nothing but fractured volcanic rock, without much topsoil. Every square inch of vineyard and farmland on the island had to be hand-cleared of countless stones; on the island, people joke and conjecture that the garden walls probably evolved as the answer to the conundrum, What do we do with all these rocks we just dug up?

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A giardino Pantesco—also known as a "jardinu" in local dialect—is only one component of a traditional Pantellerian homestead, each element of which has an immediately recognizable vernacular architecture. At the center is the dammuso, or living quarters, with massively thick walls and a distinctive domed roof. The unforgettable, undulating shape is also unique to Pantelleria, and designed to collect rainwater and channel it down to a subterranean cisterna. A hardened pathway from the dammuso downhill to the jardinu also serves as a rainwater conduit, funneling runoff under the small garden gate. Farmers thresh grain in a nearby aira (another perfectly circular area but with lower walls) and sun-dry grapes and figs in the stinnituri, a south-facing wall with angled buttresses.

All these architectural features developed to deal with the constant hot winds known as sirocco that blow in from the Sahara and the Levante winds that blow in from the Near East. These winds dominate Pantelleria's weather as many as 300 days per year.

No one knows for certain who built the first giardino Pantesco: Some attribute it to the Phoenicians, who colonized the island 3,000 years ago. Others cite the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, or one of the many other civilizations that occupied Pantelleria over the millennia. Most often credit is given to the Arabic-speaking settlers who invaded in 700 A.D. and stayed for centuries; many of the island place names—such as Gadir and Bugeber, which belong to an ancient Arabic dialect similar to Maltese—date to this period.

"The surviving gardens were mostly built between the 18th and 19th centuries," Barbera points out, "but it is probable that they have been present on the island since ancient times."

Despite the relatively arid climate and chronic shortage of fresh water, the slopes of Pantelleria now appear surprisingly verdant. Vineyards dot the island, a situation made possible because the local grape variety, Zibibbo di Pantelleria, has evolved to survive with minimal irrigation. The centuries-old technique for keeping grape vines alive on Pantelleria—extensive pruning so that they hug the ground, behind yet more hand-built stone walls—is the only farming practice UNESCO deems "An Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity."

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About 400 giardini Panteschi survive today, in various states of disrepair. Of these, 300 are precisely circular, while others are rectangular, pentagonal, or even teardrop-shaped due to the nearby terrain.

Whatever its shape, there's something almost mystical about entering a jardinu, as if you're entering a temple to the tree itself. The space inside feels set apart from the real world outside. "One enters them bowing, the shade and the coolness immediately felt, the imposing walls giving the feeling of entering a sacred place," Barbera ruminates.

Why citrus, and not some other tree? As far back as the Middle Ages, it was known that fresh fruit, especially citrus, prevented scurvy. Giardini Panteschi may have provided the only source of vitamin C on the island.

The only giardino Pantesco officially open to the public is managed by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano in the vineyards of the Donnafugata winery near the village of Khamma. But some of the dammusi rented to vacationers have their own giardini, and any leisurely drive around the island will reveal a few of the unmistakable circular walls (but always ask permission before entering).

Famed architectural philosopher Bernard Rudofsky visited Pantelleria and became fascinated by the unique design of its gardens, marveling about them in his book The Prodigious Builders. "The Pantellerian giardino represents an unheard-of extravaganza,” he writes. “It embodies the archetype of 'paradise' (originally a Persian word meaning 'circular enclosure'), complete with the tree of sour knowledge."

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steingart
2 days ago
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Princeton, NJ
satadru
3 days ago
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New York, NY
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1 public comment
mareino
5 days ago
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"A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows."
Washington, District of Columbia
hannahdraper
5 days ago
Exactly what I was thinking.

The End Goal

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“The goal isn’t credit. The goal is change.”
– Seth Godin

When your ideas get stolen.

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steingart
26 days ago
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says the idea stealer. I think the idea is worth ~5% of the execution, but this is the stuff of Randian bad guys.
Princeton, NJ
satadru
24 days ago
Joker meme "It's not about the money, it's about sending a message."
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Om Malik on Foxconn Buying Belkin

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Om Malik:

“I can’t put my finger on why, but this acquisition seems weird to me,” writes John Gruber, describing Foxconn’s decision to buy Belkin for $866 million. It is not that weird, especially when you take into account the competitive landscape.

TL: DR version: Foxconn needs to boost margins. Belkin has a great brand but faces an increasingly competitive landscape. It is weirdly about Taiwan vs. China.

I’ve always felt Belkin kit was kind of crappy — never more so than the comparison between their Qi charging pad and Mophie’s. Mophie’s is so much better — at the same price — it’s ridiculous. The big difference is that the Belkin charging pad has a very small sweet spot — you have to place your phone on it just so. And the Belkin one has an ugly bright green LED that turns on when you’re charging, and points up. Garish on a bedside table. The Mophie one has a subtle white light that points down, not up. I’ve also become a fan of Anker’s products (and have this Qi charger on my desk). I kind of feel like Foxconn bought a loser here.

Chris Pepper also made a keen observation about why this acquisition seems weird: “Because Foxconn manufactures a lot of Belkin’s competitors’ products.”

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steingart
26 days ago
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Quoting his own quote and it’s turtles all the way down
Princeton, NJ
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Don’t Use a Nest Doorbell to Raise Your Kids

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Nest just released a new ad, and let me tell you: there are some issues with the content. So you see this teenage girl in a prom dress ring a Nest doorbell, and a teen couple walk out the front door. The two girls walk to a car, as a low robotic voice beckons the boy and proceeds to give him a fatherly speech about…

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steingart
26 days ago
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It’s a very slow news day at Gizmodo
Princeton, NJ
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An honest trailer for every Wes Anderson movie

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As Isle of Dogs prepares to enter theaters,1 Honest Trailers created a bitingly truthful trailer for all of Wes Anderson’s films, in which they ding the director for symmetry, nostalgia, whimsey, whip pans, the overwhelming maleness of his ennui-suffering & disaffected protagonists, and Bill Murray on a tiny motorcycle in a profile shot. The description of his films as “meticulously crafted awkward family fables that make you kinda happy, kinda sad, and kinda unsure when you’re supposed to laugh or not” is pretty much spot-on and the reason I like them so much.

In 2012, before the release of Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson talked about his approach to movies on NPR’s Fresh Air:

I have a way of filming things and staging them and designing sets. There were times when I thought I should change my approach, but in fact, this is what I like to do. It’s sort of like my handwriting as a movie director. And somewhere along the way, I think I’ve made the decision: I’m going to write in my own handwriting. That’s just sort of my way.

And that’s why he’s “your barista’s favorite director”.

  1. But only in a limited release, as I found out this morning. 27 theaters this weekend and not in wide release until April 13. I’d have to drive to fricking Boston to see it earlier than that. :(

Tags: movies   remix   trailers   video   Wes Anderson
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satadru
30 days ago
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One of their best.
New York, NY
steingart
32 days ago
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on point
Princeton, NJ
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NY says Charter lied about new broadband, threatens to revoke its franchise

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(credit: Cole Marshall)

New York government officials have threatened to terminate Charter Communications' franchise agreements with New York City, saying the cable company failed to meet broadband construction requirements and may not have paid all of its required franchise fees.

The NY Public Service Commission said Charter should pay a $1 million fine for missing a deadline to expand its broadband network statewide and is questioning Charter over declines in franchise fees paid to New York City.

"It is critically important that regulated companies strictly adhere to the state's rules and regulations," PSC Chairman John Rhodes said in an announcement yesterday. "If a regulated entity like Charter's cable business decides to violate or ignore the rules, we will take swift action and hold [it] accountable to the full extent of the law."

Charter violated state rules or NYC franchise

The allegations relate both to Charter's 2011 franchise agreements with New York City and statewide commitments Charter made in order to get state approval of its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable (TWC). Charter told the commission that it met the latest merger buildout deadline, but a "detailed audit by Commission staff found more than 14,000 passings claimed by Charter for its December milestone were ineligible, causing Charter to fall short of the milestone by more than 8,000 passings," the commission said.

Charter claimed that it met the TWC merger buildout commitments in part by expanding service in New York City. But Charter's "new" broadband deployments in New York City included addresses that the company was already required to serve as part of the franchise agreements, the commission said.

If Charter wasn't already serving those addresses in New York City, it would have violated the franchise agreements, the commission said. But if Charter was already serving those addresses, then they can't count toward the new construction required in order to meet merger commitments.

The commission served Charter with an order to show cause, requiring Charter to answer the "commission staff's findings that the company should pay $1 million to the State Treasury for missing a December deadline to expand its network to 36,771 additional homes and businesses that did not have high speed broadband as of the date of Charter's acquisition of Time Warner cable," the announcement said.

A second order to show cause requires Charter to answer allegations about its possible non-compliance with NYC franchise agreements.

Charter is apparently "either in violation of the Commission's regulations or the NYC franchise agreements," the commission said, noting that "it is questionable whether Charter's network did in fact pass all buildings in its NYC footprint as required by the respective franchise renewals."

The commission is investigating "whether Charter's franchise agreement with New York City should be terminated for breaches, including underpayments and failure to meet network deployment obligations," it said.

The commission said it is suspicious that Charter isn't paying enough in franchise fees because the payments to the city "have been declining year-over-year since Charter consummated its merger with Time Warner [Cable]." Charter is required to pay five percent of its annual gross video revenue to the city.

"If Charter is improperly calculating its franchise fee payments to NYC it may be construed as a material breach of the agreement and a basis for [franchise] revocation proceedings to begin," the commission said.

Charter said it will dispute the allegations.

"Charter is committed to bringing more broadband to more people across New York State," the company said in a statement to Ars. "We exceeded our last buildout commitment by thousands of homes and businesses. We've also raised our speeds to deliver faster broadband statewide. We are in full compliance with our merger order and the New York City franchise, and we will fight these baseless and legally suspect actions vigorously."

Charter agreed to pay a fine last year after the state commission found it hadn't met an early merger-related buildout deadline. Separately, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has a pending lawsuit against Charter that alleges the company falsely promised fast Internet speeds that it knew it could not deliver.

It seems unlikely that the PSC would revoke Charter's NYC franchises, as it is threatening to do. But starting the process could pressure Charter to satisfy the state's demands for more broadband deployment.

NYC homes already had broadband

Charter's merger approval required it to expand broadband to 145,000 "unserved" or "underserved" residences or businesses by May 2020. To count as unserved, a location must not have any ISP offering download speeds of at least 25Mbps; to count as underserved, a location must not have any ISP offering download speeds of at least 100Mbps.

Charter originally was required to serve more than 36,000 of those units by May 18, 2017, but it missed the deadline and obtained an extension until December 16, 2017.

Charter filed an update on its compliance on January 8, 2018, stating that it had passed 42,889 premises by the December deadline. But the PSC said it is proposing to disqualify more than 14,000 of those, leaving Charter well short of the requirement.

Most of the disqualified addresses are in New York City, where Charter counted 12,467 addresses as part of its newly completed construction. But none of the New York City addresses should count toward the buildout requirement because each location was either served already by Charter's network or was previously "served by one or more other providers at speeds of 100Mbps," the PSC said.

PSC used online mapping tools as part of its investigation and visited 490 addresses in New York City, gaining access to 462 of them. All of these 462 "were either served by pre-existing Charter network, 100Mbps service from another provider, or a combination of both," the commission said.

The commission provided a few specific examples. Two multi-unit buildings with a combined 214 residential units should already have been served by Charter under its franchise agreement. The commission also described what it called a "more egregious example:"

Charter also listed the Reuters Building as countable toward the December 2017 target in Charter's January 2018 filing, which has a listed address of 3 Times Square. Staff could not find any photos of the building prior to 2014 beside aerial views, but construction was completed in 2001, well before the effective date of the current franchise agreements. If Charter's network was not capable of providing these addresses with service, then it appears as though it may be a material breach of the NYC franchise renewals that warrants further investigation here and grounds to begin revocation proceedings.

The merger-related construction requirements are supposed to be met in less-densely populated areas or in areas that require line extensions, but "New York City is not such an area," the commission said.

Outside of New York City, commission staff said they identified another 1,762 addresses that should be disqualified. In 1,726 of these cases, "there was [a] pre-existing cable network," the commission said. The other 36 addresses either already had 100Mbps service from another provider or were "duplicate pre-existing/100Mbps service addresses."

"DPS Staff advises that many of these claimed newly completed passings actually consisted of cable and equipment upgrades to existing cable plant," the commission said. "In other words, Charter replaced older cabling and equipment on a pole with newer cabling and equipment, but the location had already been passed by the cable network, oftentimes having been originally passed with cable network for years."

The state also says that Charter's plan to serve 145,000 addresses by 2020 includes 11,979 addresses that should not count toward the target. Many of these addresses are in Census blocks where the state has separate plans to award broadband deployment grants to ISPs.

The PSC gave Charter 21 days to provide a full response.

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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steingart
34 days ago
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Oooh a 1MM Fine. So Scary for the little Huge Internet company,
Princeton, NJ
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