Category Archives: Interview

Chasing Cholera in Haiti

This post was originally published on Medium.com on Mar 29, 2013.The deadliest river in Haiti

It was February 25, 2012, and I was tracing cholera’s path around Haiti, trying to understand how a disease so treatable could kill so many people. A cholera outbreak could never happen in Miami, all the experts said, but I didn’t understand how a bacterium could discriminate against who it would infect and kill, and why it was picking Haiti of all places to do this.

Silver bursts of sunlight caught my eye at irregular intervals as we wound around the bends of the Artibonite River on our way from Saint-Marc to Mirebalais. At 320 km long, the Artibonite is the longest river in Haiti. It provides the 1.2 million residents of Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, with hydroelectric power, making it the most powerful river in Haiti. And ever since the Nepalese faction of the United Nation’s military operation infected the river with cholera by improperly disposing of their infected waste, it has been the deadliest river in Haiti.

Artibonite River Dam, Haiti, Arikia Millikan

Whenever Americans hear that UN peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti for the first time, they’re skeptical. But we know that’s where it came from because the Vibrio cholerae bacteria responsible for the outbreak has a genetic fingerprint, just like we all have fingerprints that distinguish us as individuals, and that particular strain came from Nepal. That’s where the troops were from who were stationed at the UN base directly upstream from the location of the first documented cholera case in Mirebalais.

Since the first case of cholera was documented in October of 2010, the disease has killed over 8,000 people and infected 649,000 others — over 5% of the population. When I was in Haiti in the spring of 2011, there had already been 4,672 cholera deaths. Health organizations were circulating information about the disease in hopes that simple awareness would curb it. Cartoon figures on concrete fences smiled patronizingly at pedestrians walking along rubble-littered streets, explaining how to properly wash one’s hands. There were rumors of advice whispered amongst the bourgeois: “Don’t eat the salad at such-and-such place, someone got sick because they washed the lettuce with contaminated water.” “Stay away from seafood, because, you know.”

Cholera PSA Haiti

In Port-au-Prince, there is no public water system — no infrastructure of pipes connecting residences to a main supply. But there is access to treated water, if you can afford it. Drinking water comes in jugs like the kind you’ve probably seen in offices attached to a conical paper cup dispenser. You drink it, rinse dishes with it, and use it to brush your teeth. Sometimes when you’re walking or driving around outside, you hear the high-pitched mechanical tunes that in developed countries signals an ice cream truck is near. In Haiti, it means the water truck is near. Little kids and adults alike chase after the truck, pay a few cents and receive a clear plastic baggie of water they carefully break open with their teeth or poke straws into to hydrate.

The Water Truck Haiti

There’s a different kind of water for bathing. It’s treated with bacteria-killing chemicals in a much cruder way. Some people have reservoirs underground to store it, and pumps to circulate it through pipes and out of faucets — if there happens to be electricity. Electricity from the main grid comes and goes in an unpredictable fashion. Forget about heated water. Without electricity, the pumps can’t circulate the water, which means bucket showers. You never, ever want to drink this water. The eyeballed methods of chlorination are unreliable. Too little and the reservoir is subject to microorganisms, too much and the chlorine leaves your skin with an itchy burn after your freezing bucket shower.

Many of the victims of cholera, I later learned, were too poor to afford these luxuries.

The car pressed on around the river, tracing the spread of disease from the first documented case, to the site of the first massive outbreak. Along the way, we passed several banners reprimanding the UN for bringing cholera to Haiti.

With me was Paul Clammer, the British documentarian who wrote all the major guidebooks to Haiti in the past decade. Our driver, Edzer, was a former member of the Haitian police force who had retired to go back to school to be a social worker. To earn money, he translated for journalists and helped them get around in Haiti. His laid back smile made him seem like a big teddy bear, but when a street vendor popped out of nowhere next to the car startling us all, his reflexes in hitting the lock button told me he was a teddy bear who could kill someone in two seconds if he had a reason.

We were driving along the path that Jon Lascher, the Haiti Program Manager for Partners In Health, had directed us to take to meet him at the new teaching hospital in Mirebalais. He had just taken us on a tour of the hospital in Saint-Marc that had once been filled far past capacity with cholera victims, their bodies all violently expelling fluid in attempt to rid themselves of the toxin-releasing bacteria that rapidly replicates in the low acid environment of the small intestine. The Vibrio cholerae bacterium doesn’t kill people directly — its goal is merely to exit the body and spread to new hosts. When people die from cholera, they actually die from dehydration.

A Cholera triage center

This is the ironic tragedy of the disease. Nobody should ever die from cholera because the solution is so simple: rehydrate. The miracle treatment that patients get when they go to the hospital for treatment for a cholera infection, is something called “Ringer Lactate”. It is essentially salt water. A standard package costs about $1.50. But for most people in Haiti, this luxury is simply unavailable.

As we drove, Jon texted me that there would be some scenic views of the Artibonite river as we got closer to Mirebalais, and asked where we were. I texted back that we had passed a town called Verettes 15 minutes ago. There were no stores or other landmarks along the way, just houses here and there — floorless concrete walls painted in cheery pastels with various plant life thatched over top to protect against the harsh sun and relentless downpours of the rainy seasons.

The rainy seasons, peaking in May and October, are when the cholera cases spike. Just when the epidemiologists grow hopeful that all the efforts of the public health workers have finally managed to quell the outbreak, turbulent storms rip across the country, mixing infected water sources with clean ones and enabling cholera’s transport far and wide, all over again.

I was staring out the window, looking at that treacherous river and thinking about all this and how horrible it would be to die that way, when I started noticing people walking along the side of the road, carrying massive loads of things atop their heads as Haitians do. I wondered how long it would take them to get where they were going, since we’d been driving a long time through a whole lot of nowhere. I noticed some of them were carrying big jugs of water, and I felt so bad for them because water is so heavy and they had to carry it so far since there were no stores for at least 15 miles.

“Edzer, where do you think they’re getting that water from?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said after thinking about it for a minute. “I hope not the river.”

“No, they know that river is contaminated,” I said. “We have to find out.”

Edzer pulled the car over and we all got out and started walking in the direction the people were moving. We caught up with a young woman and Edzer introduced himself and asked her where everyone carrying water was coming from. “La Source,” said the woman, who said her name was Michou Felix. We didn’t understand. She pointed down into the brush beyond the road. We asked if she could show us, and she shrugged and agreed. We walked down the street for a few minutes until she pointed out a break in the brush. She led the way along the path, down far away from the road into a shady grotto. It started to get muddy, and we passed an opportunistic wild pig basking near a puddle. Nearby, a chicken pecked the ground.

“La Source,” Michou announced with a wave of her hand. Paul and Edzer and I all looked at each other with different forms of surprise. In front of us was a twisted bunch of exposed tree roots out of which a natural spring was trickling fresh water into a puddle far more shallow than your average kiddie pool. A man was standing on a root off to the side, patiently holding a plastic container below the trickle to fill it up while his three kids played off to the side. He had another plastic container with blue liquid in it.

“Is this their drinking water?” I asked Edzer to have him translate. It was, indeed, the sole source of drinking water for the surrounding community, where people mostly worked farming sweet potatoes, bananas and peas. Michou estimated this measly spring supplied the water needs of 5,000 people. She said some people treat it with “detergent,” the blue liquid the man was holding containing anyone’s guess about what cocktail of chemicals it contained.

“Aren’t they worried about cholera?” I asked. Edzer took a deep breath and translated. Michou shrugged the most helpless shrug anyone has ever shrugged in the history of the world, and responded in Kreyol. Edzer turned to me and said, “This is what we got to drink. It’s the life we have.”

“But, what are they going to do when the rainy season comes? What if the river contamination seeps into their spring?” I asked. He didn’t turn back to her, but instead leaned in closer to me. “They live under the fate of God,” he said. “If you kept asking them about it, they would say, they live under the fate of God.” We thanked Michou and gave her some money, then headed back to the car. It finally all made sense. That was real Haiti. That was how most people outside the city lived, with their most important resource transformed into a roulette wheel of excruciating death and disease. When cholera struck communities like that, seeping into their drinking water reservoirs then crawling from family to family as people tried in vain to treat their sick, there were no simple rehydration mechanisms. The public health task at hand, to make clean water and sanitation systems accessible by communities like Michou’s, would take decades, if it could ever be completed at all.

As we walked back to the car along the road, I was blinded by the irony of the situation where on one side of the road was a massive river, overflowing with the most precious commodity on the island, but to drink from it likely meant death. Meanwhile, the all-but-hidden spring on the other side of the road was trickling groundwater at a rate that the average American wouldn’t have the patience to fill a bathtub with, and was supporting a community of 5,000 people.

A cholera outbreak could never have spread in Miami, the experts all said. I now understood why.

“Home is where your stuff is”

I was featured in Psychology Today Magazine this month, in an article called “Place Value” about people who choose to forego material objects for the freedom of living spontaneously.

Arikia Millikan _ Oliver Mark

Photo by Oliver Mark for Psychology Today Magazine.

Home Base: “I never really formed a concept of home,” says Arikia Millikan, a writer and information architect who travels about three months a year and considers her one-bedroom rental in Berlin to be just one of her “bases.” As a child, Millikan moved often and says, “My mother would tell me, ‘Home is where your stuff is.’ I have internalized that.”

I was asked to pose for a photoshoot with Oliver Mark, a Berlin-based photographer who has a way of capturing subjects in their most regal state. This was a particular feat that day considering that I had just landed from an 21-hour flight from LAX through Copenhagen and finally back to Berlin, and was experiencing proper jet lag. When the intercom buzzed, I was trying to clean up my apartment, which looked like a tornado hit it from my last-minute packing frenzy (I always pack at the last possible moment). I was wearing no makeup, I hadn’t done the dishes, and Oliver came in and said, “You look great, I can work with this,” and just started moving furniture around and pulling clothes out of my closet.

It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a photoshoot, and I am honored to be immortalized by Psychology Today as a notable “minimalist traveler” of our time.

An extra bit from the interview that wasn’t included in the final version:

I sometimes joke that my brain is like the bus from Speed — if it slows below 55mph it will explode. I feel the most emotionally content and intellectually stimulated when I am in motion. I could never accept the level of monotony most people cherish. Every new place filled with new people is a series of puzzles just waiting to be solved. Perhaps Berlin feels like home to me precisely because it’s always buzzing with novelty. There are a few parts that anchor me, but it feels like a different city every day.

Read the full article here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201807/place-value

Special thanks to: Kaja Perina (EIC, Psychology Today), Hannah Kenyon-Lair (hair), and Amira Marion (wardrobe).

 

Two interviews and a podcast

Some people care about my thoughts and opinions. Some even cared enough to ask me about them lately. Here are the results of those lines of inquiry:

Story in a Bottle, a podcast about journalism and tech by Dan Macarone

One of the best things about the world of technology is that you can end up in it having come from any direction. The most successful founders, venture capitalists, designers, etc. have fascinating stories behind their success, and every week Charming Robot‘s Dan Maccarone sits down over our guest’s favorite cocktail, wine or beer to hear where they came from and what they’ve learned along the way.

Arikia Millikan is a journalist and entrepreneur with a resume that boasts digitizing traditionally print-centric brands. It’s a career that’s given her a fair share of behind-the-scenes experiences with the epidemic that’s overtaking the industry – the continued and steepening uphill battle of maintaining the right motivation in the world of news and content. Over Bloody Marys (with a fun twist) at Fools Gold in NYC, she explains how her unique approach in applying engineering principles paired with a “squeaky wheel” reputation help her press forward and innovate within this challenging space.

Topics we discuss include:
*Me being dragged kicking and screaming into learning about journalism business models.
*Why Medium is the worst.
*How I tried to help several print-centric media companies monetize their online content before that was cool and nobody listened to me, even though I was ultimately correct.
*What I’ve been working on since LadyBits.

Safe (Digital) Spaces, an Inclusion.Tech interview with Claire Hsu.

In this issue, we speak with Cyber Communication Specialist Arikia Millikan, about why she started using digital security and privacy tools as a journalist and her recent efforts hosting CryptoParty workshops to teach people how to develop personal risk assessments and how to make use of increasingly broad-based and user-friendly tools to defend themselves.

Cyber-Feminism: Women Take Up Encryption In A Post Trump World, by Tracy Clark-Flory for Vocativ

Last week, journalist Arikia Millikan reached out to women-in-tech listservs with some basic pointers on things like encryption, warning that “now is a good time to get serious about online security.” The response was strong enough that she followed up on Sunday with what’s known as a cryptoparty, where just under a dozen people gathered to learn more about protecting their online privacy. They went over security best practices and swapped “keys” — a phrase that has nothing to do with swinging and everything to do with vouching for the authenticity of each others’ encrypted accounts. The gender ratio was evenly split, which is rare for these kinds of events, she said.

See? I’m still alive, I’ve just been underground.

“The canary in the cole mine for today’s teenagers”

friendfluenceThat’s how Carlin Flora described me in her new book, Friendfluence, with respect to my immersive online life, which I detailed for her in an interview last fall.

I met Carlin when I was an intern at Psychology Today and she was an editor, so it was kind of a cool time-warpy thing to become her interview subject. I’m super excited for her new book, which combines the latest psychological research on friendships with personal anecdotes.

Here is the excerpt about me:

Anyone over thirty can likely divide life into the pre- and post-Internet eras. They made friends before online socializing proliferated, and now they maintain those friends (and sometimes make new ones) online. But what is it like for younger people who have no “before” and “after,” whose friends have always existed in person and on screens? Arikia Millikan, now twenty-five, got her first e-mail account when she was eight years old, after her mom got her a Hewlett-Packard personal computer. In high school, she started wandering into online chat rooms. “I was drawn to the kind of disjointed interaction it offered—where you could walk away from the computer and come back and resume the conversation later.”

Near the end of Arikia’s freshman year of high school in Gainesville, Florida, when she was fourteen, her mother found an e-mail to her from a boy in her class. “It was sexual, but it was jokey—just innocent kid stuff. But my mom completely freaked out. She ended our Internet subscription. So all through high school I had to walk to the public library to get online.” She could IM there at the library but felt very distant from her peers who had constant access. “There was this whole conversation I was missing out on, and relationships I couldn’t forge. Knowing that I was missing out probably drove the tech obsession I later developed.”

Before going off to college at the University of Michigan in 2004, Arikia got a new laptop. It happened to be the year that Facebook first became accessible to colleges other than Harvard. “You would meet someone in a class or something, and then you would immediately look them up on Facebook,” she says. “You would have way more information about that person than was ever possible before.”

Reading Facebook profiles entailed more than just checking out someone’s favorite bands or movies, Arikia says. It was an intuitive process that yielded an overall impression of someone. “Throughout college I became really good friends with people who were really different from me, opposite in their political views, for instance. Facebook just framed the conversation going forward. You had access to things that person hadn’t told you, but that were fair game information to discuss.”

I wondered if maintaining her own Facebook page was a stressful game of image maintenance, given how crucial these profiles were to social life. “I was always pretty authentic,” she says. “But you want to have your best face forward, so there’s the process of deleting unflattering pictures, and crafting your updates to reflect the best parts of your personality. I was probably less self-conscious than other people about photos that were potentially incriminating, like of me drinking at a party.” Students were warned by administrators, in fact, not to post comments or photos that they wouldn’t want a future employer to see. “I was very quick to take the position that if a future employer was going to hold something silly I did in college against me, that wasn’t the kind of employer that I’d want to work for.” Spoken like a stereotypical millennial!

Yet it was a prophetic notion: Arikia is now an online editor at Wired, the tech and science magazine. Her natural passion for online socializing turned into a job offer when a Wired editor started following her tweets and gave her a few freelance projects to work on. Still close with many of her college friends, she believes she has personally influenced several of them to move to New York, where she headed right after graduation. “I think some of my friends were drawn to come here, based on my portrayal of my experiences in the city on social media.”

“I’m always online,” Arikia says. “I never disconnect, except when I sleep. I probably go to about four events a week; most are media or science related—it’s an opportunity for people to get together and see friends from the Internet and meet new people.” In an ironic twist, Arikia met her roommate—whom she considers to be her best friend—the old-fashioned way, at a bar. But their first conversation was about none other than Facebook. “We were thrilled to find another person who understood social media as much as the other.”

“Social media has made such a big difference on my well-being that I like to show other people that it can be a really enjoyable part of life,” Arikia says. “For me it’s really been the vessel to solidify friendships that I can’t imagine would have formed, or would have formed so quickly, if it wasn’t for the availability of the communication media.”

As for those who say people of her generation are empathy-less narcissists without real friends, Arikia says, “Anyone who would say that has obviously not experienced the full benefits of the Internet or even given it a chance. I feel sorry for them.”

An interview with Ted Kennedy

The news that Senator Ted Kennedy succumbed to his malignant brain tumor and passed away on August 25 prompted Americans to mourn his loss. But for one man, Ted Kennedy, this day served as a weird reminder of his own mortality. I caught up with Ted Kennedy and our mutual friend and Googler, Lisa, on g-talk shortly after Senator Ted Kennedy’s passing to find out how this tragedy affected him.

me: Ted, how did it feel seeing the announcement of your death plastered over all of American media?
Ted: It was de-familiarizing and slightly anti-climactic…Well not anti-climactic, I was just surprised about my nostalgia for the time in my life when he had been alive.
me: I see.
Did Ted Kennedy’s passing ever make you stop to imagine that perhaps it was you who died that day?
Ted: No, but at least one person actually thought it was me when they were notified via a late night text.
Lisa: I probably would have thought that too, but it was Ted who was sending the text.
“Apparently Ted Kennedy died.”

To commemorate the death of Ted Kennedy’s name doppelganger, Ted and Lisa made this 2-minute video:

tedkennedytoilet