Monday, November 21, 2011

The Still Point of the Turning World

The title of this blog comes from T.S. Eliot. He was talking about books and I think he was right. In this busy world books are something very static or at least they used to be. The idea of the book is now changing. What exactly constitutes a book? “Books” now can have many added features such as 3-D clips, embedded digi-vids, and recordable devices so a narrator can tell the story (presumably for parents and children). The format of what constitutes a book is changing.
Last fall I received a Kindle as a present from Aya. I love to read. I read in the bathroom, in planes/trains/automobiles, before bed time, etc. I usually am reading 2-3 books at a time and in an average year I get through about 50 books of varying size. So naturally the idea of the Kindle intrigued me. The main draw for me was that it could hold a lot of media in a relatively small device. I am often traveling and so this would be a great thing to have. Last summer I seriously considered buying one as I was going to be taking graduate classes and traveling at the same time. I certainly didn’t want to lug my textbooks around with me and the Kindle would have been perfect except that those particular titles weren’t in the Kindle selection yet. Therein lies one of the drawbacks. Despite the vast amount of titles available on the Kindle it is merely a drop in the literary bucket. So I didn’t buy it because of that, the price of most books on the unit, and the price of the Kindle itself. At the time it was around 200 dollars to buy a Kindle and some of the titles can only be bought for 9.99 and above via amazon while their paper editions can be found for 1 cent plus shipping.
By the time Aya got me my Kindle things had changed a bit. The price fell to around 175 dollars, many more titles were added to the selections, and they now carried MG3 which is basically the ability to access the internet anywhere. Part of the reason for the evolution of the Kindle has been the rise of other similar things such as the release of the iPad2 in 2011 and now more recently other book tableture devices like the Nook from Barnes and Noble . In many ways the Nook is comparable to the Kindle while the Ipad can function like a Kindle, but then it also has so much more. It has more connection to all the applications that you would normally use on your laptop plus the usual gadgetry of the iTouch.
Now Amazon has responded with the Kindle Fire which can be comparable in many ways with the ipad. However, the speed and dexterity of using the internet on a Kindle is not very good. You would not use your Kindle if a normal desktop was within any reasonable walking distance of where you stood. Nor would you want to type a long winded blog (such as this one) since the key pad is small. I would rather use my cell-phone than Kindle to type something. For using the internet my Kindle has come in handy on only a few occasions looking for directions and such.

That really made me start to think, what exactly is this Kindle for? Is it a book or is it something else? I guess it is no longer a book because it has internet access, but then again it is made to look and feel a bit like a book. It seems that the main intent of the Kindle is for it to be used for reading.
At first I was discontent with the slow and clumsy internet and keypad use on my Kindle but after considering it I think I am happy about that. In that way it remains more of a book because it discourages me from doing anything with it but reading. There are enough things in life to distract me; I don’t need the thought of being able to easily access the internet while reading to be one of them.

Considering my Kindle brought up two questions for me. First, will the book remain as it basically has been for a millennium? I would say no, but yes. Despite the fact that paper book sales are down 9% this past year I think yes, books on paper will continue.There are some things that electronic books just can’t do and do we really expect everyone in the world to buy an electronic device to read? I think not. You could also look at it from the angle of a connoisseur. Just because most people use CD's or electronic files these days that doesn’t mean that there aren’t those who buy vinyl. I had a great conversation with my boss the other day about how things have changed. She thinks books are on the way out, completely, and that they are likely to go the way of vinyl. That is collectors items, but not much else.(she was also, btw, the first class in her elementary school to use ball point pens instead of ink, think about that) She cited the fact that for our students books are not what they were to us. Every kid now has grown up from birth touching an interactive screen. Very soon we will have kids entering our high schools and then become young professionals, who have very little contact with a physical book.
Then again, books will change. With all the capabilities of what “books” could be there will inevitably be some tinkering. I think the change is good. Imagine a text book in which the diagram of a rain cycle that actually moves.That would be pretty neat. Maybe a novel in which Alice shrinks and grows as you tilt the book (already exist actually)

Second, how will this change our society? The French writer Jean-Phillipe De Tonnac says "the true function of books is to safeguard the things that forgetfulness constantly threatens to destroy." That is a very interesting quote, but historically i think books have allowed us to actually lose memory among individuals at the gain of society. If you think about the vast change that the printing press and hence the start of the mass distribution of books caused, well, that is massive. Information preservation was placed on a higher shelf (ba-dam-ba-ching!)and societies could more easily access the collective knowledge of people past and present.
However, something was lost with the invention of the book and that was part of an oral tradition based on memory so that quote by Tonnac could be turned on itself. People used to tell each other tales that were very long. Take for instance the Iliad and the Odyssey. Those were poems or hymns and so were told from memory. With the advent of books those were written down. I doubt anyone could tell the tale from memory today, though there are some who are able to do similar things. The memory that was used for those tales was then allocated to something else. A similar example could be told with the advent of the cell-phone. I don’t know anyone’s phone number anymore except that of my mother and grandparents and that is because I remembered those numbers pre-cell-phone. That’s what you did with important numbers before cell-phones, you remembered them. Does that mean my memory is any worse for it? I would say not actually since the memorization of phone numbers is pretty trivial and it opened up my mind to remember something else that could be more important, like remembering my passport number or the password to my blogger account which are more important to me than knowing David Jinkins's phone number.
As I sat with my boss and talked about the changes over her lifetime I hearkened an even older person, my grandfather, who just turned 90 years old. He saw the automobile become popular, flight(almost the beginning of), travel to outer space (!), antibiotics(!), traffic lights, frozen food, the jet engine, television, the power of the atom, video film, cell phones, personal computers and the internet just to name the big ones. Life as he knew it when he was a boy could barely compare to our present. It makes me wonder as well, as I was looking at Kristin Frea-Davis's baby's picture the other day, will she read books? Is it really the end of books? If she reaches 90, what will the world contain then? That will be 22nd century.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Welcome Home

Today is the day of the estimated birth of the 7 billionth person. I have much to say on the subject, but the bottom line is that so many people so ait so much better, so here is my favorite with some links to some cool sites. Welcome to the world # 7,000,000,000. I especially liked the feature on theBBC site, the NY times debate was intellectually interesting, but I think the National Geographic feature gives the best overall picture. By JOEL E. COHEN ONE week from today, the United Nations estimates, the world’s population will reach seven billion. Because censuses are infrequent and incomplete, no one knows the precise date — the Census Bureau puts it somewhere next March — but there can be no doubt that humanity is approaching a milestone. The first billion people accumulated over a leisurely interval, from the origins of humans hundreds of thousands of years ago to the early 1800s. Adding the second took another 120 or so years. Then, in the last 50 years, humanity more than doubled, surging from three billion in 1959 to four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987 and six billion in 1998. This rate of population increase has no historical precedent. Can the earth support seven billion now, and the three billion people who are expected to be added by the end of this century? Are the enormous increases in households, cities, material consumption and waste compatible with dignity, health, environmental quality and freedom from poverty? For some in the West, the greatest challenge — because it is the least visible — is to shake off, at last, the view that large and growing numbers of people represent power and prosperity. This view was fostered over millenniums, by the pronatalism of the Hebrew Bible, the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church and Arab thinkers like Ibn Khaldun. Mercantilists of the 16th through the 18th centuries saw a growing population as increasing national wealth: more workers, more consumers, more soldiers. Enlarging the workforce depressed wages, increasing the economic surplus available to the king. “The number of the people makes the wealth of states,” said Frederick the Great. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pronatalism acquired a specious scientific aura from social Darwinism and eugenics. Even today, some economists argue, incorrectly, that population growth is required for economic growth and that Africa is underpopulated. This view made some sense for societies subject to catastrophic mortality from famines, plagues and wars. But it has outlived its usefulness now that human consumption, and pollution, loom large across the earth. Today, while many people reject the equation of human numbers with power, it remains unpalatable, if not suicidal, for political leaders to admit that the United States and Europe do not need growing populations to prosper and be influential and that rich countries should reduce their rates of unintended pregnancy and help poor countries do likewise. With the globalization of work, the incentive for owners of capital today to ignore or not address rapid growth in the numbers of poor people remains as it was for the kings of yore: lower wages for workers at any level of skill offer a bigger economic surplus to be captured. But just as pronatalism is unjustified, so are the dire — and discredited — prophecies of Thomas Malthus and his followers, who believed that soaring populations must lead to mass starvation. In fact, the world is physically capable of feeding, sheltering and enriching many more people in the short term. Between 1820, at the dawn of the industrial age, and 2008, when the world economy entered recession, economic output per person increased elevenfold. Life expectancy tripled in the last few thousand years, to a global average of nearly 70 years. The average number of children per woman fell worldwide to about 2.5 now from 5 in 1950. The world’s population is growing at 1.1 percent per year, half the peak rate in the 1960s. The slowing growth rate enables families and societies to focus on the well-being of their children rather than the quantity. Nearly two-thirds of women under 50 who are married or in a union use some form of contraception, which saves the lives of mothers who would otherwise die in childbirth and avoids millions of abortions each year — an achievement that people who oppose and people who support the availability of legal abortions can both celebrate. But there is plenty of bad news, too. Nearly half the world lives on $2 a day, or less. In China, the figure is 36 percent; in India, 76 percent. More than 800 million people live in slums. A similar number, mostly women, are illiterate. Some 850 million to 925 million people experience food insecurity or chronic undernourishment. In much of Africa and South Asia, more than half the children are stunted (of low height for their age) as a result of chronic hunger. While the world produced 2.3 billion metric tons of cereal grains in 2009-10 — enough calories to sustain 9 to 11 billion people — only 46 percent of the grain went into human mouths. Domestic animals got 34 percent of the crop, and 19 percent went to industrial uses like biofuels, starches and plastics. Of the 208 million pregnancies in 2008, about 86 million were unintended, and they resulted in 33 million unplanned births. And unintended births are not the whole problem. Contraceptives have been free since 2002 in Niger, where the total fertility rate — more than seven children per woman in mid-2010 — was the world’s highest. Women in Niger marry at a median age of 15.5, and married women and men reported in 2006 that they wanted an average of 8.8 and 12.6 children, respectively. Human demands on the earth have grown enormously, though the atmosphere, the oceans and the continents are no bigger now than they were when humans evolved. Already, more than a billion people live without an adequate, renewable supply of fresh water. About two-thirds of fresh water is used for agriculture. Over the coming half century, as incomes rise, people will try to buy agricultural products that require more water. Cities and industries will demand more than three times as much water in developing countries. Watershed managers will increasingly want to limit water diversion from rivers to maintain flood plains, permit fish to migrate, recycle organic matter and maintain water quality. Water shortages are projected to be significant in northern Africa, India, China, parts of Europe, eastern Australia, the western United States and elsewhere. Climate changes will increase the water available for agriculture in North America and Asia but decrease it in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Similar stories could be told about land, overfishing and carbon and nitrogen emissions to the atmosphere. Where is this taking us? The coming half century will see huge shifts in the geopolitical balance of numbers, further declines in the number of children per woman, smaller but more numerous households, an increasingly elderly population, and growing and more numerous cities. The United Nations Population Division anticipates 8 billion people by 2025, 9 billion by 2043 and 10 billion by 2083. India will have more people than China shortly after 2020, and sub-Saharan Africa will have more people than India before 2040. In 1950, there were nearly three times as many Europeans as sub-Saharan Africans. By 2010, there were 16 percent more sub-Saharan Africans than Europeans. By 2100, according to the Population Division, there will be nearly five sub-Saharan Africans for every European. In some ways, the growth in the numbers of people matters less than the growth in the numbers of households. If each household has its own refrigerator, air-conditioner, TV and car, the average energy demand for a given number of people goes up as the average number of people in a household goes down. The urban population of developing countries is expected to grow by a million people every five days through at least 2030, while the rural population falls. Many cities will eat into prime agricultural land unless they grow in density, not extent. And nearly half of urban population growth by 2015 will occur in cities of fewer than half a million people. The coming revolution in aging is well under way in the more developed countries. It will go global in the next half century. In 1950, for each person 65 and older, there were more than six children under 15. By 2070, elderly people will outnumber children under 15, and there will be only three people of working age (15 to 64) for every two people under 15 or 65 and older. Pressures to extend the “working age” beyond 65 will grow more intense. Is economic development the best contraception? Or is voluntary contraception the best form of development? Does the world need a bigger pie (more productive technologies) or fewer forks (slower population growth through voluntary contraception) or better manners (fewer inequities, less violence and corruption, freer trade and mobility, more rule of law, less material-intensive consumption)? Or is education of better quality and greater availability a key ingredient of all other strategies? All these approaches have value. However much we would like one, there is no panacea, though some priorities are clear: voluntary contraception and support services, universal primary and secondary education, and food for pregnant and lactating mothers and children under 5. These priorities are mutually reinforcing, and they are affordable. Providing modern family planning methods to all people with unmet needs would cost about $6.7 billion a year, slightly less than the $6.9 billion Americans are expected to spend for Halloween this year. By one estimate, achieving universal primary and secondary education by 2015 would cost anywhere from $35 billion to $70 billion in additional spending per year. IF we spend our wealth — our material, environmental, human and financial capital — faster than we increase it by savings and investment, we will shift the costs of the prosperity that some enjoy today onto future generations. The mismatch between the short-term incentives that guide our political and economic institutions and even our families, on one hand, and our long-term aspirations, on the other, is severe. We must increase the probability that every child born will be wanted and well cared for and have decent prospects for a good life. We must conserve more, and more wisely use, the energy, water, land, materials and biological diversity with which we are blessed. Henceforth we need to measure our growth in prosperity: not by the sheer number of people who inhabit the earth, and not by flawed measurements like G.D.P., but by how well we satisfy basic human needs; by how well we foster dignity, creativity, community and cooperation; by how well we care for our biological and physical environment, our only home.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Malthusian Nightmare

"This natural inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production of the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that appears to me insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society." Thomas Malthus wrote those words hundreds of years ago and if he were alive today, standing on Nanjing rd. in Shanghai, during the peak of the October holiday, we would be shocked at the very least. China is a nation of people, that is China’s strength. The flood of cheap labor pouring into the cities from the country side powers the supply of goods that enter the global market at a fraction of the cost of other country’s production. It is that mass of people that most people think of when they think of China and I am sure now that my mother has been here and literally pressed the flesh, she would agree. I think more than the great wall at Mutianyu, more than the Forbidden City, more than being at the top of the Shanghai Financial Center, my mother will remember the massive amount of people she encountered in China. People, people, everywhere. Of course it was holiday break and we were going to some of the most popular tourist sites, popular for foreign and domestic tourists alike. She had come to spend some time seeing where I was living and working, but also to meet up with my wife’s parents. It was great for killing two birds with one stone, or really three in this case. We got to see our parents, have them see each other, and do some sight seeing around Shanghai that we probably wouldn’t have done on our own. My mother came about a week before Aya’s parents so we spent some time here in Shanghai getting her adjusted to the time difference, which I don’t think ever really took. Then we spent a few days in Beijing. Beijing, as usual, was crowded and dirty. Going to see the sights felt mostly like an exercise of pushing and shoving Chinese people, but we did get to a few places. One day we even hired a driver, who was polite, but oddly uncooperative at times. We had booked him to take us to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, then back to Beijing and to a kung fu show later in the day. As it turned out my mother got sick on the ride back. Luckily she had a plastic bag from a "I climbed the great wall" t-shirt. Later, she jokingly said it might have been more fitting had it said, "I puked on the great wall". She went to go rest in the hotel when we returned to Beijing. Faced with 2.5 hours until the show I asked the driver to take me to lunch near the Lama Temple. He said I should take the subway and then asked if I was sure I had enough time. Well, I certainly would have if he would have just driven me there. I did end up having enough time, but just barely, to go have lunch and then make it back to collect my mother and go to the show, but as it turned out she was still ill. I ended up canceling the show and returning to spend the night in the hotel room. I was actually kind of relieved to be sharing a 15X10 ft space with less than 15X10 people. The next day we got up bright and early to make our way back to Shanghai, but because of my negligence we went to the wrong terminal and missed our flight. This is the first time, out of 80 or so flights I have taken, that this has happened. At least now I can say that I don’t spend too much time in airports . We got another flight and made our way back to Shanghai where Aya’s parents were soon to be arriving. Unfortunately my mom was exhausted from being sick and traveling and so missed out on the “cannonball” taxi ride from the airport that I took with Aya’s parents. Apparently there are some rules involving the distance of a fare and your place in the queue when you return to the airport. Our driver was a bit reluctant to take our fare, but determined to get rid of us as fast as possible and so drove at 150 on the highway back to our apartment (that is about 93 miles an hour, for you km to miles folks).The next few days were a blur of breakfasts at our apartment followed by trips around the city and to nearby cities, dinners, river cruise, and other sight seeing. It seemed to go by very fast and as we sat at home Sunday night, having delivered both sets of parents to the airport, we reflected on the past week of activity. It’s always nice to have family, but also nice to see them go. My mother, despite getting very sick, held up pretty well. Aya and I started talking about the future and taking care of our parents in their old age, the conclusion of which was this; I hope my mother can be resilient enough spend her old age in a new location.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflecting on 9/11

When I transferred planes in Zurich I had my first encounter with Egyptian culture. I got bumped up to business class and was seated next to a middle aged Egyptian business man. It made me a little bit nervous. Middle Eastern guy + plane = explosion. I wanted to switch seats, but I was the only white guy on the plane, no matter where I went the equation would be the same. I kind of felt like I was playing a game entitled, One Of These Things Is Not Like the Other. I tried to quiet my mind by telling it that my rational was idiotic and that I would have to get used to this ratio. I had to stay where I was and deal with it.
The business man and I had some good conversation and then he fell asleep. I guess for him the conversation wasn’t that engaging. I had a few whiskey sours to calm myself and was getting drowsy, but before I passed out I started to think. In the years since the September attacks I had tried to figure out why exactly Bin Laden had attacked the U.S. I mean, I knew that as a country we could be arrogant and selfish, focused mainly on exploiting other peoples and countries for our own materialistic and political gain, but what was so bad about that? Isn’t that what all countries did? I peacefully drifted into my alcohol induced sleep as the plane hummed along.
A few hours later I was awakened by the snoring of the Egyptian business man. I could hear by the back thrust of the engines that we were pulling out of the clouds and descending upon Cairo. I rubbed my eyes, yawned, and stretched. Then I looked over the sleeping business man and out the window. I was kind of groggy and not expecting much beyond a stretching horizon of vapid terrain. Those whiskeys quickly went to the pit of my stomach and formed a brick. My God, Cairo was huge. I had seen large cities from the sky before and I had read that Cairo was a very large city, but I was not prepared for the sight. An immense city of sand colored buildings with a muddy serpent weaving through it lay before me. For miles and miles were apartment buildings and paved roads. We were high enough so that the apartment buildings weren’t much bigger than the tip of a marker. I could barely make out cars moving on the streets and yet I couldn’t locate the end of the city. I unbuckled and went to a window on the other side of the plane only to be met with the same vision, an endless metropolis in the desert. How strange. I wasn’t even sure what would happen next. Was I still dreaming?

I was so warm and sticky that morning under the damned blanket, but my girlfriend insisted that we have it. Women often require more heat at night than men. Hence, for men, the traditional act of throwing out one leg. On this particular morning my roommate, with whom I shared a bedroom, had gotten up early to have tea and watch the news. It must have been about 6 am. His bumbling from the kitchen woke me up initially, but during the next hour or so I drifted back in and out of sleep peacefully. I could tell that the sun was rising steadily because the beams coming through the window were becoming stronger and more persistent. I could faintly hear the television and was waking up, but still resistant to getting out of bed.
I heard a faint knocking on the bedroom door and it opened a few inches. Buhk’s exuberant face appeared above a steaming cup of tea.
“Dude, a plane just flew into the World Trade Tower.” He said.
“mmmmm… yeah, so?” I grumbled.
“Ok” he said, and softly closed the door.
What a jerk, I was trying to sleep. Why should I care about the news at this hour? I reburied my face into the sheets and my girlfriend’s back. Just a little bit longer here and then I would get up to face the day. It was so soft and dark; I didn’t want to start yet. I drifted back into a light sleep until again a soft knock came from the bedroom door.
“Dude?” Buhk said.
“WWWHAT?” I said in irritation.
“ Uh… maybe you should come see this.” He said.
I sighed to no one and slipped out of my part of the blanket.
“MMMMmmmm… ” Kristin said rolling to her back and putting her hands to her face.
“I’m going to go watch the news, Buhk said some plane flew into the World Trade Tower.” I said. As I said this I realized that I wasn’t even sure where the Trade Tower was, but Kristin and Buhk did since they had taken a trip with our high school brass band that past year which had brought them to New York.
She removed her hands, squinted at me, and reluctantly got out of bed. As she walked into the living room I trailed her slowly in my boxers and a t-shirt. We crashed onto the couch and into each other. The morning was a little cool and the chill was brushing away the heat of the bed. As I held onto her and rubbed her arms another plane hit the second tower. I stopped rubbing and she straightened up. Buhk was still blowing on his tea and put his tea cup down on his saucer with a decisive clink. It was a moment of incomprehension. None of us understood the scene. None of us knew what to say. We just looked at each other with mouths agape. Finally Buhk whispered, “What the hell was that?”

The three of us sat there watching the news for a few hours. On the television were pictures of both towers billowing thick black smoke. Smoke and debris was spewing out like it might never end. I had never been to New York and didn’t really know how big the towers were. I didn’t even really know what they were or what they represented. News reports were still sketchy at the time. People still weren’t certain if this was some kind of accident or not. Some people were still speculating about the size of the planes. As I watched flashing images of the burning tower mixed with intermittent clips of reporters giving what information they knew something triggered in my brain. I knew in that instant that this was different from anything I had seen before. A part of history was happening here and in a sickening way I was sure the United States was under attack.
I had a class at 10:30 that day, so I got ready and headed off to school. By this time the Pentagon was also confirmed as being attacked and there was a notion of a plane crashing in Pennsylvania. I had also heard that a few car bombs had gone off in front of the capitol. At this point there was a lot of information going around, and much of it was speculation. Like most people that day, I was confused.
Upon reaching the student union I found groups of people bunched around the few televisions that were on the main floor. I stopped for a while to watch with them to see if anything new had happened since I had left home. It didn’t seem like there was any new information so I proceeded to my first class. As I crossed the union square I remember the whole city had an eerie quiet to it. In a square that was usually packed I was one of the only people. One the bus that morning I was one of the only people riding the #22. When I had entered the union it didn’t have the same din that it usually did. Looking at the clear blue sky I imagined a plane crashing into the tallest building on campus, the dormitory where I had lived the previous year.
As I reached my classroom I saw a note attached to the door. It read, “All classes are cancelled for today.” As I doubled back across the square I again looked at the blue sky. It was a day to feel alive. The world was moving. My new vitality christened by the deaths of thousands.
I walked away happy to have the day off, but with a new questions in my mind. Are we really under attack? Are we going to war? Will I be drafted? Who did this? A new fear, the fear of going to war, crept into my soul. Entering maturity in the U.S. during the nineties I had little reason to think I would ever be involved in a war. For me war was over, forever. After the USSR fell I thought eternal peace would ensue for the United States. I was just a kid.
It was scary to think about. I thought of the service of my grandfathers and father and knew that should the time arise for me to take arms it would be my civic duty just as it had been theirs. I was galvanized.
In the ensuing months I watched my country respond to these attacks. I watched George Bush visit ground zero and listened to reports about troops being sent into Afghanistan to go after the Taliban. I was proud and happy. My country was defending itself and coming together as a nation to fight a common threat. Both parties, for a time, dropped their bickering and united towards that common goal. There was a huge surge of pride in the nation at that time which was positive, but also negative. I was already starting to see the underside of that pride. American people gathered hatred towards all those of Middle Eastern or Muslim descent. Flags hung in every car window and store front. People talked openly about those “rag heads” and “sand niggers”. Some of the people that I knew had gone into the military and I heard gossip around my home town about the boys who were shipped to Afghanistan. Although the patriotism in the U.S. was extreme and a little uncomforting I was content in the knowledge that we were going after the people who had done this. Things would pan out with America as the victor and the country would return to normalcy.
In the winter of 2003 I started to hear conjecture on the evening news about Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The United States was claiming that he was hiding weapons of mass destruction. For months the news covered the U.S. claims that this was a real threat while the rest of the world was asking for more time and investigation. In my mind it was hard to justify. Why were we the only ones who saw this? Why didn’t Hans Blix, who was the U.N. weapons inspector, see these things in Iraq or know anything about them? It seemed to me that pieces of the puzzle were missing. I remember in the hours leading up to the invasion George Bush gave Saddam an ultimatum, give up the weapons now or we are coming in.
I laughed when I first heard this. I was in a restaurant with a friend and I heard it on the news. I nearly choked because I was laughing so hard. It was one of those times in my life when I laughed at the wrong moment for reasons only apparent to myself. Everyone in the place turned to look at the crazy guy choking on his noodles. In my mind I imagined Saddam sitting in his palace with his advisors around him watching the news. A special bulletin interrupts Iraqi news and George Bush appears on screen demanding that Saddam give up his weapons. Grimacing and wringing his hands Saddam says,
“Oh shit, what are we going to do now? How can we give up weapons that we don’t have? Isn’t this a catch-22? Oh shit, well, that’s it for me. Get the Republican Guard ready I’ll uh… meet you out front in a few.”

One evening my mother and I went to dinner and debated the merits of invasion. After eating we were sitting there talking about family and such things. On the television came news of our impending invasion of Iraq. Colin Powell was making a very passionate speech, to the U.N. I think, about the need for invasion. My mother and me did not agree on the need for invasion.
I have a feeling that thousands of conversations like that one were happening in the nation at that time. By the summer of 2004 the 9/11 commission had released its report on Iraq and it became clear that Saddam had not collaborated with Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda, there were no WMD’s, and our presence in Iraq was likely not stopping terrorism, but encouraging it. We were less safe than we were in 2000. I was feeling quite egotistical about this information and was sure Bush would not be re-elected in 2004. People started to turn against the president and the democrats in the U.S. tried to ride the wave of anti-war resentment in the presidential election of 2004, but the tide wasn’t high enough yet. I remember the despair I felt the following day knowing that Bush, despite his follies, would carry a second term. I made a promise to myself that I was leaving the country. I felt that my country had become intractable. A lot of acrimony was built up against Muslims and the Middle East so in February when I was offered a job teaching in Egypt I jumped at the chance.

Immediately when I got off the plane there was a man with a placard that had my name on it. He spoke no English, I just pointed, he nodded, and then I followed. He led me to a woman who did speak English and circumvented me around all of customs. The woman asked where I was going, was I with EALS? I had to buy a visa for 15 dollars and then have one guy look at my passport. It was really amusing because there was a huge shuffling mass of foreigners trying to get through one gate and my escort just walked me around it. No one checked to see what I had in the bags. I could have had severed limbs in there for all they knew. Two more men awaited me to help me with my luggage. I then met four more people from the school who were waiting for me. It was pretty awkward. I shook a few hands and then a man grabbed my bags as I was escorted out the sliding glass doors. I remember stepping aback as the heat hit me. It was August and I was expecting heat, but this heat was different. It was dirty heat. It made me feel like taking a shower every hour after that. My guides took me in to Cairo proper in a fairly new Fiat. As we weaved in and out of traffic at break neck speed one of my guides tried talking to me. I don’t remember what we talked about mainly because I was afraid for my life and sweating buckets in Cairo’s heat. There were no lanes, no stop signs, apparently no rules at all. On the six lane highway I saw one guy back up about fifty feet because he had missed his exit. He barely missed hitting a guy on a donkey. Every sign was in Arabic so I had not even the faintest idea where we were going. Something I noticed right away was that everybody was enamored with their horns. It seemed like the entire way there we were being honked at or honking ourselves. I was later to learn this was pretty much the only traffic rule in Egypt. If you are passing, honk. Want to merge with traffic? Honk. Unsure of who goes first at an intersection? Honk. Getting bored because you are driving alone in the middle of the desert? Honk.

After that quick and dangerous ride we finally pulled up to an old hotel. The outside looked horrible. It hadn’t been painted in many years and bits and pieces were starting to fall off here and there. It was also filthy, covered in dust. It somewhat resembled the sand castles I used to build as a kid, the kind that shortly crumbled as they dried in the wind. My confidence in my guides was waning and my sense of flight was increasing. The outside of the hotel might have been in poor shape but the lobby was well polished marble with very nice looking furniture. The employees all had nice trim uniforms and the women all wore headscarves. After a brief conversation with the receptionist my guide turned to me, gave me the key to my room, and told me she would be in contact. Then she turned on her heel and walked out.
I trudged my way up five flights of stairs with all my bags and into my room. I had trouble with the key, a great sign of things to come, but finally the door opened. The bathroom was directly in front of the main door and I hadn’t peed since Rome. That was 6 hours and 3 whiskey sours ago. I immediately stepped in and flicked on the lights. The first thing I noticed was the bade’ and the small amount of toilet paper. Oh God, I thought, how does that work? As I peed and stared off into space I noticed something moving. All along the cracks in the tiles were bugs, lots of little bugs. I grabbed my bags outside of the bathroom door, threw them onto my bed, and got my camera out. As I stepped onto the balcony I examined my surroundings. As far as I could see were sand colored buildings tinted with the setting sun. I snapped a few pictures and then contemplated where I was. I was in Egypt, in a hotel. I was thousands of miles from home in a country whose alphabet wasn’t even remotely like mine. I didn’t even know when I would see my guide next. I was completely alone. I was very scared.
Because of the time difference I didn’t sleep at all that first night. I unpacked some stuff, wrote some impressions on my computer, and chain smoked cigarettes. Around three in the morning the sky began to lighten. Around 4am I began to explore other floors of the hotel. On the top floor of the hotel I discovered a giant banquet hall with bay windows on two sides. Absolutely no one was around and by the layer of dust on things it appeared no one had for some time. I pulled a chair up to the window and grabbed an ashtray. As I looked out at the sun beginning to illuminate Cairo, smoking cigarette after cigarette, my thoughts kept floating back to the same place. Where did it all begin and end?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Food Diversity

Last month’s issue of National Geographic carried yet another story of the approach of the 7th billionth person, this one having to do with food production. Most people would automatically think that the food problem of a burgeoning society would be production of enough food and it is. As a planet we will have to double our food production to account for the new people and shifts in diet that are estimated to occur by 2050. However, there is another problem with the way we are going about doing this. Food crops are grown for various reasons such as color, durability, taste, productivity. Not too many are grown for safety anymore, but maybe they should be.

In the arctic there is an ark of sorts, an ark of seeds. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, set inside the permafrost of a sandstone mountain on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen just 700 miles from the North Pole. Here many of world’s seed banks send their seeds as a kind of back up to the back up. It is a safe place because it is in a point of high elevation free from climate swings and disaster as well as being naturally chilled. Food varieties extinction is happening all over the world, fast. Of course this saving of seeds is not for taste, it’s for safety. As variety of food becomes smaller so does the genetic variations available to those breeds.

In the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain. Here, in China, 90 percent of the wheat varieties cultivated just a century ago have disappeared. Experts estimate that we have lost more than half of the world's food varieties over the past century. As for the 8,000 known livestock breeds, 1,600 are endangered or already extinct. People are choosing to produce fewer varieties because they are able to produce more, better, with those varieties and so do so looking at the short term goal of volume of food production. So there is a push away from variety. Focusing too narrowly on producing more can, oxymoronically, lead to famine. The Irish potato famine is a great example of how relying on a narrow variety of food crops produced a large human population whose staple crop were they hit by a disease which lead to a steep decline in the human population. There are plenty of examples in the modern day as well and I am sure that there will be more as climate change continues to occur.
Diversity is important because when crop fails because of a change in climate, pests or disease, people suffer. In the past if there was a problem with popular crops humans could always go back to the wild varieties to find traits to interbreed that would overcome that problem. The problem now is that wild varieties are also becoming much scarcer as people are expanding further and further into every corner of fertile land with genetically narrow crops.
Both goals make sense, produce more to feed more and produce more variety to ensure safety. The challenge in the future will be to do both at the same time.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fireflies in Ofunato

Four months to the day after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami I arrived in the disaster area to volunteer with relief work. After climbing Dewa Sanzan with my friends on the weekend I drove to Sendai Sunday night, then onwards to Ofunato on Monday. As I drove through the Japanese countryside it was a very pleasant summer day and I passed a few towns along the coastline where I did not see damage. As I approached the coast further on I saw two badly damaged cars in a roadside parking lot then just a bit on a guard rail that had been crumpled. I thought to myself, wow, that must have been a bad accident and at that moment I crested a hill and Kessenuma (picture 1) was revealed to me or what was left of it.
I quickly realized those cars were not damage from a traffic accident. For some reason it had not been on my mind that I would soon be entering the area and it really a shock. I had seen many images in the news and watched hours of footage of the tsunami, but nothing prepares you for the real thing. For the first 15 minutes all I saw of Kessenuma was a tangle of debris and piles being built by Caterpillar equipment. Soon I mounted another hill and there were houses and businesses standing intact. This pattern came again and again as I made my way north along the coast going to Ofunato. The most dramatic of all being Rikuzentakata where more than 80% of structures were destroyed, essentially it was been “wiped from the map”(picture 2).
After arriving in Ofunato (picture 3) and finding the All Hands base

Project Tohoku from All Hands Volunteers on Vimeo.

I got settled in and to work. Over the next week I helped various crews with digging ditches in rice fields, clearing water drainage tunnels, scrubbing tubs and stoking fires and an evacuation center, cleaning and restoring damaged photographs, and translating between crew leaders and Japanese volunteers. Each of these had their own rewards.
Each night at dinner a meeting would take place in which new people introduced themselves, leaving people said their goodbyes, and workers would sign up for crews for the next days work. On that first night a woman who had been there for some time got up to say her goodbyes. It was a tearful speech in part because she had come to love the work she was doing, but also because of the connection she felt with the people of Ofunato. She said that of all the things she wanted to emphasize it was making a connection to the people of Ofunato that was most important. In her speech she mentioned how someone had explained to her that fireflies are believed to carry the spirits of the dead and that one of her most emotional moments was seeing some at night by the river. After the meeting ended I went to the local convenience store to get some snacks, but noticed that the sunset was particularly beautiful. I got my snacks and a beer and sat by the river banks watching the sun go down. As dark came on fireflies began to float about and I couldn’t help but recall that each of them would be carrying a spirit.

My first day in the field I dug ditches in Rikuzentakata and it was hard dirty work. Digging through 3 ft deep mud and debris we would often hit objects with our shovel and each time I had to wonder what we would be digging up. We found cassettes, cuff links, clothing, tires, rice cookers, sign posts, and a host of other things. Each time I found a new object I wondered who it belonged to.
Another day I worked at cleaning photographs and each one I cleaned I looked at the smiling faces and wondered. Wedding albums, school trips, family portraits, who was still among us? Will these photos ever be claimed?
One day I worked at the evacuation center scrubbing tubs and stoking a fire that would heat the water. It was an all day job and very hot having to be near the fire. In some ways I felt like the job was not as interesting as the other jobs I had done, but it was rewarding. As we were preparing to leave for the day a single old woman came from the shelter and said something like, “It’s so hot today! Thank you for heating the water”, as she made her way to the bath, the first person to use it that day. That was enough to make it worth it, but many other people came forward to thank us for our work. Old women brought snacks and tea, people thanked us and waved from passing cars, many other Japanese volunteers shook our hands and I even got one hug which is fairly unusual for a Japanese person.
On my final day I worked with a road crew cleaning out water tunnels and clearing debris from roads and sidewalks. Shortly after arriving a bus load of Japanese volunteers pulled up and started doing the same work a little further on up the street. My crew leader then told me to go work with them since I could speak Japanese. Most of the rest of the day I spent with them and it was nice to make that connection, to tell them who we were and why we were there, but also to be able to serve as a bridge between my team leader and their team leader so they could share ideas and work together. At the end of the day as the Japanese group was leaving they started to call my name and we came together for a group photo (4). It was intensely satisfying.
The reason that my team leader knew I spoke Japanese was because the night before there had been a festival on the street where our base was located. As the night wore on some of the volunteers made our way to a local person’s house who had invited us in for more food and drink. I talked to a number of Japanese people and at one point made my way into a conversation that was happening between a Japanese woman and the team leader. Again, it was intensely satisfying as I got to tell him that she was expressing how touched she was by our hard work and he returning thanks for having us over. It’s those connections, as the woman said, that matter most. I believe it’s those connects which brought many people like myself to aid Japan in the first place.
My experience with All Hands was a positive one and I owe a debt of thanks to them for helping me to get in there and get my hands dirty while making the process of actually doing it as painless as possible.
In the early evening on Friday I started to drive out of Ofunato to meet my father in law in Minami-soma. There I would spend one more day volunteering with him cleaning and drying photographs. As I drove out of town I spotted a sign on a building (photo 5). It reads, “Disaster comes when you forget.” Then there is a line marking the height of the wave from an earthquake that occurred in Chile, but sent waves to Ofunato. If you take a look at the building you can see that the damage from this most recent tsunami is more than twice that height.
You see, this is not the first time that Ofunato has been hit by a tsunami in recent history, not even the second if you go back a bit further. This is the third time that the town has been hit and destroyed. Yet the people pick up and start over again.

The Geography of Bliss

During this past trip to Japan I had my Kindle with me. This is the first trip where I have used it since Aya got it for me last November. It was quite handy as I could “pack” four books along with me into a device the size of a thin paperback. One of those books was called, ‘The Geography of Bliss’. It was about one man’s realization that he wasn’t all that happy and his idea to explore the places of the world the normally rank high on happiness scales to see what they had in common if anything and if he could learn from them. I really liked the book and would recommend it if that idea appeals to you. The author was insightful and funny. He went to many countries that rank high like the Netherlands, Iceland, Thailand, Bhutan, and Switzerland as well as some that should rank high like Qatar (having a very high gdp per head) and went to some other places that perhaps don’t rank high like Moldova, finally ending up in India which I believe ranks somewhere in the middle of the scale. In the end he comes to a few conclusions. To simplify, people in countries that have money, but aren’t too rich are happy. Those in countries that discourage envy are happy. Those with a sense of community and trust are happy. Spirituality can make you happy, but maybe not. Opportunity is surely in the mix.

If you take a look at the website for the happiness index you can get an idea of the things that make people happy, generally. Of course there are all sorts of different things that can make us happy in our lives like career fulfillment, family relations, connection with ecology, diet/exercise, etc. It also really depends on the person as one person’s hell is another’s heaven.
Going back to Japan this past time I realized just how much I missed living in Japan and why. Standing on a crowded, yet almost silent, Tokyo subway platform one night, making the connection between the book and the travel I was taking wasn’t hard to do. In Japan I felt safe, I could trust people. I was connected to nature just about everywhere I went. The standard of living and care for all people is pretty high and the society discourages envy. Japan is a rich nation and I fear in some ways perhaps they are too rich, to the point where they have more money than they know what to constructively do with. People’s diet and exercise routines are some of the best in the world and Japan boasts the longest life spans. However on the overall scale of things Japan ranks somewhere below where you might expect as does the U.S. and Germany despite having some of the largest economies in the world. Most of the highest ranking countries are Nordic, though Norway might move down a couple notches after the recent attacks. Though maybe it will raise it.
While in Japan I watched the news often and something I saw more than once was a happy couple getting married. The story was that after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami this couple had put things into perspective and decided there was no reason to wait. Similarly polls throughout the country ranked overall happiness, or satisfaction with life, as rising after the disaster. Perhaps a little of “this is what could happen” puts things into perspective. People stop being unsatisfied with what they don’t have and start being satisfied with what they do have. I think the poor of most 1st world nations like the U.S. could take a lesson away from that, but really that is a good lesson for anyone.
On the author’s trip around the world he encountered expatriates in each nation who had made their place in their new country and now called it home. They claimed to be happy and that makes sense as happiness is in the eyes of the beholder. I know that feeling as I was pretty happy living in Japan. Having lived in four countries now I think that Japan is my favorite, it fits me. People are quiet and polite. Streets are clean and things run on time. People concentrate more on “we” than “me”. Religion is not at the forefront of most people’s decision making and does not influence politics. While most Japanese people say they don’t trust the government there actually is a level of trust which is why Japan has such a high level of public debt but is still not considered a risk. Crime is fairly low and people generally trust each other and feel a sense of responsibility for their actions and the well being of others. Diets are good and people value the environment and exercise. Though the country can get crowded in places there are natural expanses and many sights of historical and/or cultural heritage. Unlike the U.S. people who are smart and value learning are themselves valued, no child in school has to hide the fact that they study hard or like learning from their peers. There is also a sense for me of adventure and learning. As an outsider there are constantly new things to learn and that is stimulating.
Of course there are things I didn’t like about Japan, but there will always be things that frustrate one no matter where you live. In hindsight those things didn’t really matter much when weighed against the things I did enjoy. The only thing that sticks out for me was my job, teaching English. I enjoyed it to a degree, but it was not satisfying. Here in China I am satisfied with my job, but not with where I live. I think I have found the geographical location of my happiness, now if I can only get a job there.

Thursday, July 21, 2011



This summer I went back to Japan and as such one of my main goals was to do some hiking. The boots I had been wearing for the past 4 years were certainly worn out so while in Tokyo I got a new pair from L-Breath near Shinjuku station. They turned out to work pretty well.
I had scheduled to hike with a few friends on Dewa Sanzan, the three holy mountains located in Yamagata prefecture. As such I knew I should try to get in some training before hand since I hadn’t done any hiking while in China. I run often and work out, but hiking for two solid days would strain my body in ways it was no longer used to. I also wanted to break in the boots and find any problems so I hiked Ono-Dake just south of my in laws home in Aizu, Fukushima prefecture. Ono-Dake is 1383m high and from the starting point it took me only about 2 hours up and 2 down. On the way up on more than one occasion I stopped and thought, ‘wow I am not in shape for this’.
I am very glad I took that hike because over the next 5 days I worked through the soreness of having shocked my body and so was ready to go for Dewa Sanzan.
With the weather looking fine, two friends, Jon and Danny, met up with me in Kitakata city. On a nice Saturday morning we drove north into Yamagata ken. I parked my car in Yamagata city and jumped in Danny’s car for the rest of the trip there. Danny had plans to snowboard on Mt. Gassan and so he let Jon and I off at the station in Tsuruouka to wait for a bus that would bring us to the bottom of Mt. Haguro. He would easily join us later in the evening as Haguro is only 414m high and can be climbed quickly.
Jon and I caught our bus and started our hike up Haguro happy to be out of the sun and under the cover of the forests leaves. It wasn’t long before we passed over a beautiful red bridge spanning a crystal clear river. On the other side the path went through trees over 500 years old and soon thereafter we saw Goju-no-to, the five storied wooden pagoda built more than 600 years ago. We carried on the trail and were passed by a yamabushi, a pilgrim blowing into a conch shell. He was leading a group of about 10 other men and women, pilgrims, up the mountain. We would see them again and again on our journey to the three peaks.
After a short break at a tea house we resumed climbing up the stairs (all 2446 of them!) and eventually came to a fork in the path. There was a sign, which was too difficult to read, but we assumed we had lots of time and so took the detour. We shortly arrived at a small pavilion surrounded by three stinking ponds of scum water. After deciding there was nothing to see we turned back to the main trail. We later learned that Basho, the famous haiku poet, had composed a famous poem at those three pools. I don’t know what he saw in them.

In the summer heat/ three pools turn to stinking mud/ not what Basho saw

A little later on and we were at the top of Haguro. We could see the tori gate to the shrine and knew there was more a bit beyond, but our ryokan for the night, Saikan, was just before this so we decided to get our room and strip off our packs before exploring the top. Before I go on I must say that staying at Saikan was on of the neatest parts of the trip. A traditional ryokan, it offers a small ofuro (indoor bath), traditional dining, and a large quiet place to stay. I would recommend it.
After leaving our bags inside we made it to the top were there were many sights to see. Especially intriguing was the Sanzan Gosaiden temple at the top. It is unique in many ways, but I was especially drawn to the 2 meter (6ft!) thick thatch roofing made from kaya trees. I don’t remember where, but I had read it is the thickest thatch roofing in Japan. There were many other smaller shrines at the top along with a smattering of tourist shops and a bus parking lot. After walking around for a bit we headed back for dinner and a bath. Danny showed up later and back in our room, feeling very relaxed, we cracked celebratory beers (not sure what we were celebrating as we were only 1/3 done with our hike)
The next morning we were up early to catch a bus that would take us from the top of Haguro to the bottom of Mt. Gassan, the largest of the three peaks at 1984m. On the bus with us was the same group of pilgrims from the day before and throughout the day we would pass them and they us along the trail. After Danny bought a hat and walking stick we were on our way. It was pleasant down below but after a certain altitude the clouds were clinging too closely to the peak for us to have any pleasant views. Then the rain started. We all had some rain gear, but still got pinned under a very small tree for 20 minutes waiting for the worst of the rain to stop. Reaching the top the winds picked up noticeably and the rain continued to drizzle, but it never got terribly cold. After spending a few minutes in a hut near the top shrine we began our decent on a trail that would bring us to Mt.Yudono, the last of the three holy peaks and the middle sized one. Going down got tough as the rocks were slick with rain and in some parts we were either going through snow or snow runoff/trails. About half way to Yudono Jon slipped and hurt his ankle. Some very helpful Japanese people nearby gave him some cold spray and he carried on, but would fall an additional 5 or 6 times no doubt because of his weakened ankle. I myself didn’t fall until near the end of the trail. As the trail reaches Yudono it forks going into a steep valley. The peak is not accessible. The steep trail into the valley gets so much so at times that chains and ladders are in place to assists decent. Even so the trail was a stream and going was not easy. Finally we arrived at the tori gate of the Yudono shrine entrance and the end of our hike. Overall a success and much fun. I would highly recommend this to anyone in the area as it has lots of interesting views and is a moderate but challenging hike. Oh, and did I mentioned the mummified monks in the area? Yes, it’s true

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Real Wedding, Fake Church

This past Friday evening I took off from Shanghai to go to my brother in law’s wedding in Nasu, Japan. I wasn’t particularly happy to be going as it would be a very short trip (I’m back in Shanghai writing this Sunday night), but it certainly did have an interesting aspect to it and one that I have been waiting to write about ever since I took a road trip with the family to scout wedding venues more than a year ago. I found out then that the happy couple wanted to have their wedding in a church. I found, and still find, this odd since neither of them are Christian nor have any inkling of Christianity, but there is an increasing number of couples in Japan seeking this style wedding.
I had heard of this before, namely because when I first moved to Aizu I saw a church, remarked on it, and then was told it wasn’t a real church. Not a real church? Why would anyone build a fake church? Well, because western weddings held in churches are atheistically pleasing to Japanese eyes. Every Japanese girl wants to wear a white dress and to marry in a church. They get the idea from movies and t.v. shows made in America, that these western weddings are much more appealing than their domestic weddings involving being married at a shrine wearing a kimono. While I understand the desire to have the type of wedding you want, I somehow find it shameful to be the main characters in a religious ceremony that you don’t believe in nor really have any idea of the cultural significance involved.
So last year I found myself standing in what really did appear to be a church and asking Aya all sorts of questions like, is there a real priest? Is this legal? What about all the church relics around the building? The answers are sometimes, yes, and they are mostly real.
The ceremony also included some Christian songs, like ‘I’ve got a friend in Jesus’, and a whole lot of amens along with a collared priest. I did not have a chance to ask the priest if he was real or not. However I can guarantee that the name of the place, St. Marries, is not.
I imagine that a lot of the rest of the ceremony was made up. There were parts that I recognized as part of a western style wedding. The father gave the bride away, rings were exchanged, there was a kiss, flowers and rice were also thrown. Everything was out of order though and very staged.
I am not a devout Christian, but it does bother me to see people disrespecting religion. Many of the objects I saw in the “church” were obviously objects which had been blessed. Transferring stain glass to your fake church is one thing, but chalices are another, I thought. Wondering on the state of this I emailed my mother to ask her about it and she confirmed for me that yes, in fact, these objects should not be sold to someone who will not use them in a religious way. She said, “…an object blessed for sacred use should not be used for other common use unless it is disassembled or such that it does not resemble the original use.” One particular item I noticed was a monstrance that was on the altar during the ceremony (pictured) which is used to hold a host, or blessed wafer. It does not appear, however, that they completed the farce by putting a fake host inside.
I have talked to a few people about this whole scenario trying to make sense, to come to a point of why I was so fascinated with this. Sure, it was a bit amusing, but why did this stick with me? I finally found the answer today while talking to another teacher. Why does a thing like this exist in Japan and not in America? Well, because we are a diverse society and in order not to disrespect our fellow citizens we wouldn’t go so far as to fake a religious ceremony. Japan, on the other hand, is not a diverse society. The Japanese wouldn’t begin to think of this as a heavy offense because in their society there is no one to offend.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

1000 Paper Cranes

千羽鶴, or senbadsuru, is a group of one thousand origami paper cranes held together by strings. An ancient Japanese legend promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by a crane, such as long life or recovery from illness or injury.
This past March I was beginning a unit on Japan in my World Geography and Cultures class and had decided to do a project wherein small groups of student taught the rest of the class how to do a Japanese art. One of those arts was origami. As Aya and I searched around Shanghai to get enough origami papers for each student to have a few sheets to fold we started talking about how long it would take someone to fold 1000 cranes. I had heard about this before and seen the strings of thousands of cranes for Sadako Sasaki in Hiroshima.

Somehow the obvious then dawned on me for I had been looking for a fundraising project for the students to do. Since the earthquake on March 11th Japan had been on my mind a lot and now I had the perfect opportunity to bring my students, teaching Japan arts, and helping Japan together. Should we fold 1000 cranes it would be our collective wish for Japan to heal from the events of March 11th. As a school and community we could show our support.

By April 7th I had ordered 2000 sheets of origami paper, I assumed some would be lost or discarded in the process of folding (378 were by final count). I then informed my students of the task ahead of them; to sell paper cranes to friends and family. The friends and family could then write a personal message along with their names on the origami paper. The cranes would then be folded and everyones wishes put together. The catch, the students would have to fold all 1000 cranes. I was not going to fold one and they couldn't get help from other grade level students or their parents. Of course I helped out by holding folding sessions and providing snacks while playing Japanese anime everyday during the lunch period for 2 weeks, but I never folded a crane.

As our two week deadline for completing 1000 cranes approached I was beginning to realize that there were much more than that flooding boxes in my classroom. After spending another week of lunch periods stringing them together it became easier to count all the cranes and we came out with 1622. I was amazed and really all those cranes together are very beautiful.

For a week they are hanging in the foyer of our school and then they are being boxed and shipped to Oregon where they will be matched by a 2 dollar donation per crane by the Bezos Foundation. Then I am told they will travel again to Denver to become part of a giant art installation that will hold 500,000 paper cranes.

At the end of the day I am happy that I got to share such a wonderful thing with my students and to help Japan by raising not only about 5,000 dollars but a connection to japan as well.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fun Facts about Shanghai

Some days I hate living here, some days I love it. Most days Shanghai is out of my mind, I just go to work, come home, and have a normal day. Other days I get pushed on the subway, listen to people hawking and spitting, and breathe the heavy air. Yet other days I think, wow, what a hungry and amazing people I live with. What a city!
Shanghai, and China generally, is terribly crowded. It is something that I don’t really like, but I can see how it has contributed to China’s strength. Shanghai is a symbol of that progression. A jewel at the turn of the century, marred in the communist revolution, aim of ambition when China started to welcome capitalism, today, Shanghai is the largest city in the most populated country on Earth. The sheer size and speed at which the city has expanded is amazing. It’s location in the delta of the Yangtze and on the Yellow River helped the city flourish into a major center of commerce between the east and the west, and in 2005, Shanghai became the world’s largest cargo port. Shanghai has the world's most extensive bus system, but honestly I only take the subway because the buses are too complicated for me.
Shanghai is one of the most populated cities in China. it has a permanent resident population of over 14 million, of which 12 million live in the urban areas. Shanghai population accounts for 1.1% of the Chinese population which in the most populous country on earth is really saying something. The average density of 2059 inhabitants per square kilometers (3854 in the urban areas) is phenomenal. Add on to that a huge population of itinerant workers, probably numbering two million and you have human soup. I feel like I never have a moment alone in this city and when I read numbers like that I can be pretty sure that it’s more than a feeling. (Boston anyone?)
The tallest skyscraper in Shanghai, the Shanghai World Financial Center, is now the third tallest in the world. The second tallest building in the world, which is now under construction, will be the Shanghai Tower. It will come in at a height of 2,073 feet when it’s completed.
I often hear that China aims to make Shanghai a “world city”. The way things are going, I think it already is.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

7 Billion

I had seen the January issue of National Geographic for sale a few times around town, but there is a little second hand book store that I go to every month where I can buy the previous month’s issue for a deeply discounted price. However, this time they did not have it available and so I finally relented and bought a copy online to be delivered.
I especially wanted this issue because I knew that they were running a story on the world’s population, something that I am very interested in. To my happiness I found out that this article was just part of a series that the magazine will do this year as the world approaches the birth of the 7 billionth person sometime late this year.
The story itself was interesting, but mainly just confirmed a lot of things that I had already learned from other sources. What it really did was open up a discussion between Aya and I about children. We have talked about having children and we plan to soon, but the issue is really how many and whose? Of course, they will be our children, but there is a question of if we want that to be biologically so or not.
As the world’s population swells it brings a number of environmental questions forward which is really why I am interested in population issues. Obviously more people equals more consumption of goods and more consumption of goods mean more of the planet’s resources must be used to make those goods and more waste is produced as a result.

Food and the resources used to produce it will sky rocket in use. Not only this, but as people become more wealthy their diet often turns to more meat consumption and that means much more water and grains used to produce that meat. Every pound of meat requires many pounds of grain and 600 gallons of water must be used (an average, beef is more, goat is less). Common sense will tell you that grain takes much less. Think of how many more people could be fed off of the grain and water than could be fed with the pound of meat. Now multiply that by a few hundred million.

Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth would vastly outpace food production and at the root he was right, but thanks to the efforts of the Green Revolution and Norman Borlaug the impending train wreck between population and food was averted for a time. However, we are facing it again. Norman’s goal was to produce crops that yielded more food per acre/plant in order to eliminate starvation. It pretty much worked, but could not continue to work. The simple reason is that the world’s population did not stand still. People did not think to reduce growth rates to coincide with food production. When less people starved more people had babies. Somehow the connection gets lost. This means that while crop yields grew so did numbers of people. All this wouldn’t matter too much except for the one factor we can’t improve on greatly. That is our planet, its arable land, its clean water, its natural resources and ecosystems.
As medicine and nutrition have improved life spans have increased dramatically, basically doubling in developed countries within the past few hundred years so that the traditional population pyramid became more top heavy. In developed countries, the number of centenarians is increasing at approximately 7% per year, which means doubling the centenarian population every decade, pushing it from some 455,000 in 2009 to 4.1 million in 2050. Japan is a great example of this.
The neat thing is that once countries became developed their growth rates declined. Most of the countries you can think of as developed nations have a negative growth rate. However, most of the countries you think of as developing nations are not necessarily the environmental plagues of the world. Although human numbers do add strains to environments it is also the habits of those people. Those in the developed world consume far more per capita in terms of goods than those in a developing country. So that begs the question, who is more environmentally irresponsible? Is it the person in the developed nation with 2 kids or the person in the developing country with 5?
These things all lead me to the question of, should I have children? How many? Whose should they be? Now before I pose the next batch of questions lets assume that I desire to have children, which I do, and that I want to be as good to the planet and everyone on it now and in the future, which I do.
The questions tumble out; if I wanted to be environmentally friendly I would have no children? The world will go on after I am gone, why should I add to its problems by having another mouth to feed, cloth, educate, and comfort? Would not my energies be better spent helping the people who are alive now? Would not I be better off helping a child who has already been born, but is not wanted? Should I adopt a child? If I adopt a child thinking environmentally I should adopt one from an area of the world with a similar consumption habit to the one I live in right? Otherwise I will be raising a child who would have consumed less in a lifetime I a developing society to a society in which they would consume more, correct?
However, they would not be my biological child and I have to assume that part of my desire to have children is to have one of my own. Yes, there is a degree of selfishness in all of this. Despite all my concerns for the future of our species as a whole I also have a bit of concern for myself. The fountain of youth is not in the Florida everglades, it is in the genes you pass on to your kids. I should have just as much right as anyone else to do so, but I can’t get past the idea that on an intellectual level I am betraying my principles to quench my emotional desires.
However, I have my other half and it takes two to tango so I am pretty sure that we will have at least one biological child of our own. Not to mention that Japan, a country with a rapidly shrinking population, offers a hefty monetary incentive to have a child. I can’t be certain, but it looks to be in the neighborhood of 8,000 dollars in payments and benefits. Many other countries are doing the same thing in an effort to create a boon of young workers to support their aging society.
As most people in the developing world I think we will stop with one child to ensure that we can devote as much time and money to the upbringing of that child as we can. However, the question of adoption then is still on the table. If we were to adopt a child from a similarly well off country would we be tipping the scales any more than had already occurred? I think the answer is no. I can assume a certain degree of consumption and actually the child might consume less in a household with environmentally conservative parents.
Once the world population creeps past the 7.25 billion mark my child should be entering the population pool. I guess the only real question is, will they be using the buddy system.