Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Lorax would have gone postal if he was in Haiti in the ’50s

One hot June day this summer when I was in Haiti, my sister and I were driving with my step mother to her sister’s house in the mountains. I enjoyed those trips. The downtown areas of Petionville and Port-au-Prince were claustrophobic and overwhelming; with the intense heat and sluggish pace of the traffic due to the condition of the roads (to describe them as ‘weathered’ would be the understatement of the year) car rides through the city were, at times, near unbearable for me. Eventually, the city would release its magnetic grip, allowing the car to go faster and a breeze to rush in through the windows. Then it was green, jungle, shade, and a calmer vibe all-around. The mountains were, literally, a breath of fresh air. The elevation of the roads increased quickly, exposing the entirety of the densely-clustered city in the valley below.

I was pretty excited about taking pictures of things in Haiti, and this day in particular I was preoccupied with taking pictures out of the car window, trying to find a setting that would make them turn out non-blurry. I was idly chatting with my stepmother while doing this, when she asked me: “Arikia, what do you think about the mountains?”

“They’re huge, I’ve never seen anything like them.”

“Do you notice anything about them?”

I looked over the LCD display at the mountains that I had been staring at for the past half hour. “They’re really pretty,” I offered.

“You think so? Do you notice anything strange about them?”

At this point, I was knew she was getting at something but I didn’t know what. I just smiled at her and shrugged. They were mountains! What was there to notice besides the fact that they were huge?

Finally, she sighed, exasperated with me. “There are no trees on them, Arikia.”

And sure enough, there were not. “Are there supposed to be?” I asked, snapping another picture:

It turns out, yes, mountains are supposed to have trees on them.  I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me immediately, as I’ve driven through the Appalachian mountains enough times to remember what the snow-covered pine tree tops looked like. But I guess it’s just one of those things* where if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can’t see it.

So where did Haiti’s trees go? Around 1954 logging companies went totally out-of-control, cutting down trees left and right to make charcoal, the demand for which grew with Haiti’s population. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, “Haiti was once a lush tropical island, replete with pines and broad leaf trees; however, by 1988 only about 2 percent of the country had tree cover.” The trees were cut down but not replanted, leading to soil erosion that rendered most of Haiti’s land useless for growing the agricultural products Haiti’s growing population depended on. In 2000, USAID projected Haiti would become the first country in the Western hemisphere to be considered an “eco-catastrophe.” I don’t know what the exact classification for that is but I would say the term probably already applies. In 1997, Kristen Picariello wrote in a case study of deforestation in Haiti: “If one were to fly over the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the border appears like it was drawn by an ‘acetylene torch’ owing to massive deforestation in Haiti.”

The rest of the car ride, all I could think about was The Lorax, the title character in that Dr. Seuss book we all read as children. Everyone poo-poos the Lorax for spouting science and warning people what would happen if they consumed without consideration for what it would take to replenish the resources that were depleted. In the end everyone is miserable and desperate, “like fish out of water,” as their society ceases to be able to sustain their population.

There have been some replanting efforts in Haiti in the past, one major round in the ’80s through Projè Pyebwa, and initiatives over the past 10 years by USAID. But with present lives hanging in the balance, the reforestation process is viewed as a secondary, long-term need compared with the immediate needs of providing for people in Haiti. If someone needs to cook for their family, of course they’re going to cut down a tree to make some charcoal. They’re not going to keep starving based on the idea that in 10 years or so, some other random people might have more than them. In Projè Pyebwa, Haitians planted over 20 million trees, “but as many as seven trees were cut for each new tree planted.

So like the Lorax, who would have completely flipped his lid if he saw what was going on in Haiti over the past 50 years, the message here is “Unless.” In addition to food scarcity from the desertification of land, deforestation in Haiti also damages “other productive infrastructure such as dams, irrigation systems, roads, and coastal marine ecosystems.” It made the climate harsher for people by reducing shade cover and removing protection from Haiti’s heavy torrential downpour-style rains that are just beginning for the year. And when it does start to rain, Haitians are now at a much larger risk of harm from landslides as a direct result of the recent earthquakes.

Unless…

*My Cognitive Psychology teacher played this video in a lecture of about 250 people, asking the class to count how many times the ball was passed back and forth. Only about five people noticed the gorilla after watching it the first time, myself not included. Mind fuck!

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NYC wormhole

I stepped onto the crowded subway at First Avenue, cold, wet and annoyed that my dentist was out sick after I’d gone all the way over to NYU’s dental school. The train car was packed almost to capacity, the five or so people who exited barely making room for people to enter. I noticed there was space near the midpoint of two entrances in the car, and got more annoyed. One of my serious pet peeves is when there’s a lot of people who need to get onto the train, and the people already on the train just stand there, blocking the entrance. It’s the kind of inconsideration that can make one miss a train when she’s already running late, and I’m always careful to move toward the middle in those situations. So I said, “excuse me” with detectable annoyance, ready to move into the empty middle space if the person next to me was determined to hold on to her hand rail.

Then I noticed that the terrible offender was a little girl. She looked up at me with wide eyes and hurridly stepped backward until she wound up in the middle of a crowd of people much taller than her with no access to a rail. I instantly felt bad, like one of *those* New Yorkers who give us all a bad name. She looked really flustered. “Do you have something to hold onto?” I asked her, managing a half-smile and moving slightly to make the railing available to her. She scrambled for a few moments to get situated with the tangled headphone cords plugged into her iPod mini, and I really thought she was going to go for a tumble when the train started moving. But she managed to get the earbuds in place and grasp the rail just before the train lurched forward.

I think it must have been her first time riding the subway alone. She was so small, couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, yet was dressed in the style of your typical Williamsburg-dwelling resident. Black peacoat, a long gray t-shirt over black leggings, brown and white Oxford shoes. Everything about her outfit was striving to proclaim an exaggerated maturity — except for the  pink fabric flower clip that held back part of her hair. It was a kid’s item, purchased by a grandmother or aunt at a kid’s store, a dead giveaway.

I glanced down at her iPod and saw she was spasticly flipping from song to song, only spending about 10 seconds at a time on each. Curious as to what kids are listening to these days, I peered over her shoulder and glimpsed her screen.

Snoop Dogg?????

Little girl, don’t you know what goes on at Snoop Dogg shows? Women sit on the shoulders of their male friends, waiting for the camera to broadcast them on the big screen so they can flash the crowd. He smokes blunts on stage and fires t-shirts into the crowd through an oversized bong. He raps about bitches and hos. What is an adorable, innocent girl like you doing listening to that?

Where were her parents?

I wanted to sit her down and talk to her about school, and priorities, and ask her why she was riding the subway alone at night. She exited the train ahead of me at Bedford Avenue, slipping between the crowd with ease as people ran into me, and walked up the stairs with faux confidence. Out into the night. I thought it a possibility that some bartender would be fooled by her hip outfit, overlooking her height and obvious age, and accidentally or apathetically get her trashed.

I don’t know why that girl fascinated me so much. I think that when I was 10, I was roaming cities by myself and listening to vulgar lyrics while not understanding what they mean too. I think she shocked me because I wondered if I was looking at her how other people look at me… as a little girl in a big city, striving to play a role that might be out of her league. And I think that probably, if I told that little girl what I thought, she would tell me to go fuck myself, just like I would tell someone who might say that to me.

There’s something about this city that accelerates life. It’s like a time machine that ages the minds of people at 10X the rate of people living in average suburban cities, while keeping their bodies the same. Sometimes it causes mental growing pains as the layers of comforting naïveté are removed, one by one, sometimes peeled other times ripped off. Maybe if you want to get by here, you have to get used to standing naked in the cold. If you want to make it, you have to like it, or at least convince yourself it’s better than being smothered in all that god awful comfort.

Mind Lock

At a meeting last week, one of my editors at Psychology Today told us about something she experienced while writing a book: insecurity that caused her to belabor counterfactuals to the point of torpidity, something my academic adviser in college, Chalmers Knight, calls having Mind Lock. She would stop writing and think, “Who am I to be writing this?” But she said she came to see her insecurity as a good thing, because it was humbling and inspired her to do the best job she could do. Now she thinks that writers who *don’t* stop to question if they’re good enough or qualified enough to be writing what they’re writing are probably neither.

I hope this is the case, because lately torpidity has been looming over me like the storm clouds that threaten to flood the tent cities in Haiti.

It’s going to be a busy week…

FOUND at the Internet Garage: My Baby’s Daddy

At the end of the day at the Internet Garage, we cash out and put the money in an envelope in a secret place. But for a while, we haven’t had any envelopes, requiring us to fashion them out of paper and staples. A few moments ago, I grabbed a sheet off the top of the recycling pile upon which the following words were laid in Helvetica:

My Baby’s Daddy

Mark! Don’t leave me! Please, don’t leave me! You can’t.

What? What do you mean we were never together? We had sex Tuesday at 2:46 pm exactly eight months ago and Mark…and…and…

And Mark, I’m eight months pregnant. that’s right Mark. You and I are about to be parents, parents of a tiny baby. So, I’m going to need you Mark because I can’t raise a tiny baby alone.

You can’t leave me, Mark, I’m Darlene remember?

Mark, you’re so cute and forgetful.

You’re going to make a great father.

… I hope this is some kind of artistic expression and not real.

Why don’t young people blog?

Today I came across a post by the famous Bora Zivkovic, whose sense of Internet omnisciency makes my own pale in comparison. Bora has been following an experiment of sorts by Mason Posner, a professor of biology at Ashland University in Ohio, in which Posner had his students create science blogs as part of the curriculum.

Bora writes:

…take a look at last year’s (2009) student blogs – wonderful writing on all of them, good stuff. But! One of them is already deleted. There are four other blogs that stopped posting around early May of last year, probably at the time the course ended. Only one of the blogs is still running today. Why did they stop?

Now, you may remember a similar experiment at Duke – see this and this and especially experiences of Erica Tsai who ran the program. Why did all the Duke student blogs end once the class was over? There is always a lot of chatter online (see the most recent commentary about a Pew study hereherehere and here) about teens and college students not blogging…

Bora notes that members of this younger demographic use social networking sites like Twitter and the facebook, sometimes more than their elders, but they are more likely to keep private accounts. His main question is, why do these Web savvy kids fall off with blogging?

My hunch is that a lot of it has to do with visibility. For some perspective, my class (graduating college in 2008), was the first to  have access to the facebook, and to have it all four years of college. I remember the day I got the invitation the August before I left for school, and how it shaped my interactions throughout college. We voluntarily exposed our personal lives in a time that was the height of our debauchery. We navigated our social worlds knowing people before we actually met them, and, more commonly, we learned way too much about people after only meeting them once, shaping our decisions for future meetings.

We saw our peers become examples of what not to do on the facebook. Their drunk party pictures became grounds for expulsion, job termination, and removal from athletic teams. Public embarrassment became easier than ever. One guy I (unfortunately) knew in college created a group called “The 100 Hottest Ladies at University of Michigan.” After reaching quota, he changed the group name to “MICHIGAN’S DIRTIEST WHORES,” and had a good laugh. Some people remained in that group for weeks without realizing.

With job scarcity what it is, and the aspect of Internet permanence introduced by companies like Google, kids are instilled with the advice to not post anything they wouldn’t want a potential employer to see with the fervor of sex ed campaigns promoting condom use: You don’t want to do something impulsive that will fuck up your life forever. One of my colleagues at The Michigan Daily published this article with some pretty compelling examples of how this could happen (which prompted me to make a facebook album called “This’ll fuck up your political career” and tag him in it. PWND!). We even had a policy at The Daily that editors couldn’t be in certain groups, as they might put a dent in The Daily’s credibility if someone cried “Conflict of Interest” on a news article. And of course, we all watched the defamation (not to mention contract terminations and loss of incredible amounts of revenue) of our classmate Michael Phelps.

So you see, the paranoia about putting yourself out there on the Web in an unedited form is a rampant inhibitory factor in young individuals. Hence, the locked twitter accounts and private facebook pages. Even though science blogging seems like a tame enough activity, and one that would promote one’s job acquisition instead of jeopardizing it, I think the overall skepticism about Web publicity could have something to do with young people’s hesitancy to maintain blogs. Also, young people want to talk about young people things sometimes. If they’re blogging on a platform where they can’t fully express themselves, then yeah, it does start to feel like a job or a chore.

Personally, I think the social networking paranoia is way overblown for the same reasons I think people worried about the Internet turning into Big Brother and enslaving us all need to relax: People just don’t care that much, and don’t have enough time to dig through all the content a kid can generate. I still keep my facebook page private with five different privacy filters for my friends, and have a locked Twitter account in addition to a public one, but I also have a lot of publicly available references to my debauchery too. My current employer Google stalked me pretty thoroughly before he offered me a job, but I’d like to think he hired me because of my quirky Web remnants, not in spite of them. Now he has full access to my facebook page, and doesn’t think any less of me or my ability to get the job done.

In the words of Bora Z himself, “20 years from now, a person who does NOT have drunk Facebook pictures online will be suspicious… ‘Drunk at a party’ is just a shorthand for having a normal, relaxed human online presence and not just something on LinkedIn that looks like a Resume.” People are people, and even if a person is your potential boss, they should understand that you’re just a person too. Maybe if we didn’t set extreme standards about people’s personal lives for admittance into certain professions, kids wouldn’t be so discouraged from sharing on the Web. And our politicians might be a little less fucked up.

So I think that if we want kids to get engaged with blogging, even science blogging at an early age, they have to hear messages from their elders that their any future employer who would judge them for expressing themselves isn’t someone they really want to work for anyway. And then we, as their potential future employers, need to follow through.

While we’re at it, I want to see older people post the remnants of their college debauchery on the facebook. I mean it, bust out the photo albums, scan those pics and post em. You all have job security! You really have no excuse to deny your students this joy.

Definitely not up to code [Photo]

I was feeling nostalgic about Haiti this evening and was looking through the folder on my computer’s hard drive containing all the pictures from my Haiti trip. Believe it or not, it is the first time that I’ve looked at that folder since shortly after I got back to the states mid-June. I made a facebook album with my favorite pictures (162 of them), and have looked at that album about 50 times, but never the original folder. My computer is kind of a black hole…

Anyway, I found a lot of interesting pictures that have different meaning now than they did then. Here’s the one that struck me the most:

This is a picture taken in downtown Port-Au-Prince. You can see the tight clusters of houses clinging to the mountainside which, as my stepmother explained, is “where the poor people live”. Pictures taken in the aftermath of the earthquakes show that this area was pretty destroyed, with tons of pancaked buildings. After I took this picture out the car window while driving through the area, I remember looking at it and thinking, “Crap, too slow. That building is in the way of the full view.” But now that I look at it, the building up front is the most interesting thing about it.

This mid-construction building probably eventually became someone’s home. As you can see, the walls are merely concrete bricks stacked on top of one another in a haphazard manner. If you look at the wall on the right, under the white towel hanging to dry, you can see they’ve started going over it with a gray mixture, probably concrete-based, to fill in the gaps. A building like this would  have been effective in providing shelter from the sun and rain, but it has virtually no structural support. Looking at this, it is not hard to understand why the earthquake damage is so extensive.