Is Safer Always Better?

A dozen warning signs on a construction site in KL

On January 2, 2008, an American soldier stationed in Iraq was electrocuted in his shower due to an improperly grounded water pump.

I’ve been shocked by showers in Bolivia, India, Thailand, and Ethiopia. Fortunately not seriously, but it did make bathing more exciting. You learn not to touch the taps. Actually, I once read of an entire apartment building in Mumbai which was improperly grounded. The tenants had taken to coating their faucets with silicone caulk to prevent electrocution.

Why does this happen, how could this happen? Do such places have poor codes or poor enforcement or is it just the mere sloppiness of heathens? Any way you slice it, the developing world is a more dangerous place. This isn’t always by choice: clean water and emergency services are mostly unavailable to the very poor. But those are risks that make sense, risks as old as humans that require infrastructure and advanced civilization to mitigate. What I wonder about are the billions who ride motorbikes without helmets.

And yet. And yet. There are freedoms lost in safety. All of the trains in my Toronto childhood had stickers on the window saying “keep head and arms inside.” A pity, because I loved to feel the wind in my face. Likewise, subway platforms in developed countries around the world tell us to stay back from the edge. Do we really need to be told not to fall off the edge?

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Hitting Rice with Sticks

In the developed world, everything works. The power is always on, and most things are on time. The economists tell us we’re actually more efficient at just about everything; a quick look at a table of GDP per capita shows that the developed countries make dozens of times more money per person than the poor countries. Now I know that GDP isn’t everything; I know that money doesn’t always measure what actually matters. Still, I have to wonder at the implication that some countries do so much more per person than others. Now that I’ve traveled a bit, I know that it’s completely true. It really does take more work to get anything done in a less developed place.

In the West-African country of Mali, the staple food is rice, which has a husk that must be removed before eating. The women do this work, manually, by using large mortars and wooden pestles. It takes hours to prepare a single meal this way.

Hitting Rice with Sticks in Mali

There are other examples.

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Calories, Money, and Lifespan

“Big” is a value in America, and this includes food. I’ve long suspected that portions were generally larger in the United States than the rest of the world, and a quick check shows this to be actually true. This map from theglobaleducationproject.org shows that Americans (and Western Europeans) really do consume substantially more calories than everyone else in the world.

Worldwide Caloric Intake

No big surprise here — the the citizens of richer countries do eat more food. The interesting thing is to ask what the actual numbers mean, in terms of health. Simply put, people living in the developed world eat way too much. Oddly, this might mean that the current poor will one day be healthier than the formerly rich.

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Future 4th of July

2piR

I am about to run away for the weekend with some friends to play with fire art and motorcycles. There will be no ball games, fireworks, or kegs for me. There will be no Janet Jackson, no proud Amerfican Eagle, no barbecues, and no flags. I just never could connect with the symbols of the American Good Life. We do have propane, admittedly, but we have 800 pounds of it. We’re running a thing we built called 2piR, a sort of interactive magic platform. Standing on it, you can direct huge gouts of flame from 16 nozzles ranged around you in a 50 foot diameter circle. This is what we do for fun. This is our little piece of the future we’re building for ourselves — not the hardware, but the fact that we built it.

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Chinese-American Fairness

There was an ad on the Muni, on the 30 through Chinatown, printed in English and Chinese. It was a public service announcement, warning people to beware of hustlers selling fake visas. Among other things, there was a bullet point that said,

Don’t believe anyone who says ‘we know people at the immigration service and can get your papers done quickly.

I imagine talking to a Chinese immigrant about this. I imagine their confusion. “But,” my friend Ming says, “it is very difficult to get a visa. If they know someone, this solves the problem.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” I’d tell him.

Ming blinks his confusion. How can it not work like that? Continue reading Chinese-American Fairness

Scott McClellan, President Bush, and the Permanent Campaign

Scott McClellan was the White House press secretary from July 2003 to April 2006, and the deputy press secretary before that. I saw him speak at a meeting of the Commonwealth Club this Tuesday, June 24. He talked about his relationship to President Bush, the administration’s “mistakes”, and why these mistakes were made. For example, he now feels that “the war in Iraq was not absolutely necessary.” It is fascinating to watch someone formerly so close to the president recant so publicly and dramatically, especially someone who appeared on CNN time and time again to justify the president’s decisions. The personal dynamics of what happened between the president and his press secretary are at least as interesting as the actual events, and perhaps give us a little bit of insight into the psychology of politics in America.

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French HIV Campaign is Sexy, not Scary

Most countries now have some form of safer-sex public health campaign, but the message is usually some variant of “you will die!” Consider this poster from the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia (2004):

AIDS Poster in Malaysia

By comparison, a recent French campaign talks about sex as if it were a good thing, with their “Explore — just protect yourself” series:

French HIV prevention poster

This poster is really quite an exceptional piece of art, and well worth examining at full size (just click.) Additional information can be found here.

Community Then and Now

The notion of community is changing, or perhaps community needs to become a notion. It used to be that community came for free. It was something you were born into by virtue of geography or biology, village and family. But now all the kids have moved away from their parents; now the subdivision has replaced the neighborhood. If we want community now — and of course we do — then we have to make it ourselves.

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Water Cannot be Cleaned by Machines

A friend of mine has been asked to design a small scale UV-light water purification system for use in the developing world, and he called me to ask what I knew about getting machines to work in poor places. At first I didn’t know what to say to him, because he’s at least as good an engineer as I am, but as the conversation continued I began to discover what he was missing. Engineering is the easy part of getting technology into the developing world. Getting technology accepted, used, maintained, and paid for is the hard part.
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