• I’ve never been the type who is into animals like bats, frogs and spiders, no matter how often people tell me that they are beautiful. So I was fairly unenthusiastic about the prospect of a night trip to Shanghai Botanical Garden. How wrong I was. The two-hour trip turned out to be much more fun than I could have imagined.

    Every summer holiday, the garden, together with the Shanghai Wild Bird Society, organizes weekend night trips for children aged between six and 12. Accompanied by their parents and armed with flashlights, young nature lovers observe animal and plant life under the instruction of volunteers from universities and non-governmental organizations.

    My trip started on a hot, muggy Saturday evening - a thunderstorm was predicted that night - as volunteers were receiving their final training before sunset.

    Night at a botanical garden feels a lot like the Ben Stiller movie “Night at the Museum” - nothing really sleeps there either. Bats swoop over your head, frogs come bouncing out of the water, weasels run through the woods and night-blooming plants open their petals.

    My first experience of the trip was listening for bird calls. “Twilight is the best time to listen for birds, and the sound stops after sunset,” said Zheng Wenqin, an official with the society.

    “Herons are the most frequently heard birds in the garden, though they’re secretive and we don’t actually see them very often.”

    Meanwhile, as dusk falls insects and arthropods are stepping out.

    Observing them, I saw commonplace things which I’d never bothered to consider before.

    I learned that a young mantis is a deep-brown color to camouflage it on the bark of a tree from predators.

    And I learned how spiders breed. In a small cave on a rockery, a spider was carrying eggs on her abdomen. Under the flashlight, I could see several translucent eggs gathered together, which was interesting, though also a little creepy for someone who’s not a huge fan of arachnids.

    “This is not something visitors would notice in daytime, when the garden is crowded with people,” said Zheng. “At night, people have more opportunity to closely observe the creatures using flashlights.”

    The frogs were fun. When darkness fell, numerous cricket frogs began hopping on to the muddy ground around the lakes. We needed to be careful not to stomp on them in the darkness, which was fairly difficult because they’re small and you never know in which direction they’re leaping.

    “Different breeds of frogs give out different croaks. Some have a variety of tones, while others just a single one,” explained Zheng. “We get the children to distinguish between species according to their croaks.”

    Many of the volunteers seemed absolutely obsessed with the little creatures. And although many volunteers are young women, they seemed totally unafraid of the frogs, or the creepy crawlies, for that matter. They caught several frogs and let them compete with other to see which one jumped higher and farther.

    I’ll admit that I was a wuss, so although I was interested in the amphibian athletics under the spotlights formed by torches, I stood well back to ensure the frogs didn’t jump onto my legs.

    Continuing on, we struggled through a construction area - where some of us almost got stuck in wet cement - and presently reached a small wood in the middle of the garden. There I witnessed an amazing sight that I had long hoped to see. Fireflies.

    We turned off the flashlights and couldn’t help but gasp. Like shining green spots, more than a dozen fireflies dotted the dark woods, drifting, swirling and trailing light. It was not as I had imagined - I thought there would be of hundreds lighting up the wood - but the scene was still amazing. Fireflies don’t seem scared of people. They hovered above outstretched palms, bathing them in brightness, like a small ball of positive energy.

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  • Salem Community Child Care learned that when one of its business neighbors, GT Crystal Systems, a high-tech manufacturer, reached into its own pocket to help pay for expensive renovations that allowed the day care center to remain in Shetland Park, a sprawling office complex on the waterfront.

    “I’ve never seen that,” said John Kelly, vice president of Shetland Properties.

    For a day care center that serves many poor children, it was a lifesaver.

    “We just didn’t have funds to rehab a whole new space like that,” said Christin Hatch, executive director of Salem Community Child Care, which serves 200 children at four sites in Salem, including more than 60 at Shetland Park.

    The day care center has been in the office park for about 20 years. GT Crystal Systems has been there even longer. They were next-door neighbors in an office building, although they had separate entrances and seldom rubbed shoulders.

    Last year, GT Crystal Systems completed a $25 million expansion, space it needed to grow sapphire crystals for use in industrial, medical, defense and other fields. The crystals are used in the manufacture of light-emitting diodes, or LED lights, a fast-expanding business with markets all over the world.

    In a subsequent expansion, Crystal Systems was slated to move into space occupied by Salem Community Child Care, which was at the end of its lease.

    In doing so, though, the company and Shetland Park made sure they found a new home for a needy neighbor with few options.

    While it serves a variety of families, the core mission of Salem Community Child Care is caring for children from low-income and working families. It gets state funding to help subsidize those costs, but not to pay for expensive construction.

    “We haven’t had a (state) rate increase in four years,” Hatch said. “We just don’t have the funds available to rehab a whole new space like that. We tried to find space (other places) but weren’t able to find anything.”

    Shetland Park had a large, vacant area on the second floor of the same office building, and GT Crystal Systems made a major donation toward renovations. Neither party wanted to talk about the financial details, but it was in the tens of thousands of dollars, officials confirmed.

    Renovations included a kitchen, two bathrooms, several classrooms and offices.

    “We feel it’s important to support the community where we can,” said David Baer, an attorney for GT Crystal Systems. “This was a good neighbor … (that) provides a great resource for the immediate neighborhood.

    “We knew it would leave a hole in the community, so we were more than inclined to try to support them.”

    Shetland Park is next to The Point, a low-income neighborhood.

    For its part, Shetland Park did the construction, moved the day care at no cost and did not raise the rent.

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  • AS BEIJINGERS coughed and hacked their way through another smoggy day, there were tentative signs the government was becoming aware of the broader impact of climate change and may be gearing up to do something about it.

    Driving efforts to combat pollution is a growing awareness of the impact of environmental issues on political stability, and on how it affects China’s growing economic wellbeing and food provision.

    China is the world’s most populous nation, its second biggest economy, is the biggest producer of CO2 gases and is home to some of the most polluted cities on the planet, the capital included. Climate change has also wrecked havoc on the rivers and lakes and glaciers that water the country, and desertification is eating into arable land.

    The central government has also released a hefty tome entitled the Second National Assessment Report on Climate Change, which assesses the impact of global warming for China, and says climate change could slash harvests, devastate rivers and cause droughts and floods.

    “China faces extremely grim ecological and environmental conditions under the impact of continued global warming and changes to China’s regional environment,” said the report, which was published late last year.

    However, China is still very much in the initial phase of its transformation from an agrarian society to an industrial one, which means that greenhouse gases blamed for global warming are unlikely to even start falling off before 2030.

    Without any action, grain production could fall from anything between five and 20 per cent by 2050, says the report.

    It said climate change would cause major imbalances in water resources every year.

    “Without effective measures in response, by the latter part of the 21st century, climate change could still constitute a threat to our country’s food security,” the report said.

    Rising seas would also cause problems in the big cities of the coast, many of which have been the economic engines of Chinese expansion in the past three decades.

    In the 30 years up to 2009, the sea level off Shanghai rose 11.5 centimetres, and would probably rise another 10 to 15 centimetres in the next 30 years.

    Meanwhile, after months of prevarication, the city government has agreed to start to publish more detailed air quality data on Beijing at some stage later this month, following a public outcry over official government readings that hugely underestimated just how bad the air pollution is in the nation’s capital.

    The Beijing municipal government plans to publish hourly air quality reports based on an international standard known as PM 2.5, which measures tiny particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter.

    Until now, most Beijing residents have had to rely on the US embassy website for their data, on a Twitter feed. And given that Twitter is banned, this was not an option for most Beijingers.

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  • Dean Winton’s signaling other motorists that law enforcement officers were ahead in St. Lucie County in 2010 earned him a traffic ticket — and a place in a class-action lawsuit against several state agencies over their citing drivers for flashing their headlights.

    Within the last month the lawsuit has led to both the Florida Highway Patrol and the Martin County Sheriff’s office ceasing issuing tickets for headlight flashing until the suit is settled.Sheriff’s offices in St. Lucie and Indian River counties are continuing enforcement of the state statute while waiting on the outcome of the lawsuit.At issue is whether a state statue’s prohibition of flashing lights on vehicles includes what some motorists consider to be a courtesy: signaling that officers are around.

    “This (citations for flashing lights) is a completely false assertion by traffic enforcement,” said J. Marc Jones, an Oviedo attorney, who on Aug. 22 filed the civil lawsuit against the Florida Highway Patrol and other state agencies. Jones contends the statute’s prohibition of flashing lights on vehicles doesn’t mean motorists can’t flash their headlights.

    “Officers are specifically stating that flashing lights to warn other drivers of police presence is against the law and they cite (state statute) 316.2397,” Jones wrote in his lawsuit. He said the statute clearly deals with equipment on a vehicle and not the physical act of flashing ones lights.

    The state hasn’t yet responded to the lawsuit that is pending in Leon County at the state’s capital.

    But within a week of the lawsuit’s filing, the Florida Highway stopped citing drivers.

    The FHP’s deputy director of patrol operation, Grady Carrick on Aug. 29 sent out a memo that read, “… you are directed to suspend enforcement action for this type of driver behavior, regardless of the statute cited.”

    The tickets are comparatively rare. The FHP estimates its officers have written 82 such traffic citations statewide within the last 12 months.

    Sheriff’s offices along the Treasure Coast each have written about two flashing light tickets this year but this include citations for such things as having emergency blinkers on when not needed or having decorative lights attacked to the underside of the car that change colors.Indian River County Sheriff Daryl Loar said he will review the lawsuit and monitor what his deputies are doing.St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Garry Wilson said both tickets written in by deputies this year have been upheld. Still, “We are watching the case to see the outcome,” he said.

    Wilson said flashing headlights to warn motorists of law enforcement is more usually seen on high-speed highways such as Interstate 95 and Florida’s Turnpike.

    That is where Winton was when he was stopped at 9 p.m. on May 14, 2010.

    The Weston resident was driving north out of the Port St. Lucie-Fort Pierce rest stop on the Turnpike on his way to take his wife and two children to Universal Studios in Orlando.

    He saw two Florida Department of Transportation officers parked ahead along the highway. And he flashed his minivan’s headlights.

    Soon two patrol cars with flashing colored lights were behind him.

    When he was told why he was stopped, “I was shocked,” he said. “I asked if that (headlight flashing) is illegal? The officer said yes. They are misquoting statutes.”

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