Nov 19 2008

World Toilet Day

One of my friends has helpfully pointed out that today is World Toilet Day. According to the World Toilet Organization, fully 40% of the world’s people do not have access to proper sanitation facilities.

World Toilet Day \'08

We do deserve better; I for one don’t particularly enjoy squatting in the bushes. The World Toilet Organization agrees, and sponsors World Toilet Summits and World Toilet Expos, “wherein all toilet and sanitation organizations can learn from one another and leverage on media and global support that in turn can influence governments to promote sound sanitation and public health policies.” They also started the first World Toilet College, providing training in toilet design, maintenance, school sanitation, disaster sanitation, and implementation of sustainable sanitation systems.

Okay, you can snicker now. I know I am.

This would be even funnier if it wasn’t actually serious — human waste is a major disease carrier if not handled correctly, and an awful lot of people are still just pooping on the ground or in the river. But let’s not dwell on negatives; in the carefree spirit of World Toilet Day, I thought I’d briefly discuss, and show some pictures, of the types of toilets I’ve encountered in various parts of the world. Travel yields many surprises, and, astonishingly, there were places where I had to learn to wipe my ass all over again. (“Don’t you know how to use the three seashells?” indeed.)

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Sep 10 2008

Too Safe, Too Funny

In the post Is Safer Always Better? I argued that modern Western Civilization, especially American civilization, has become obsessed with safety to the point of absurdity. I think I now have definitive proof. Johnson & Johnson has produced, for the benefit of single mothers and tort lawyers everywhere, a booklet on how to walk safely:

Apparently this was distributed to all J&J employees, perhaps in the hope that no one would sue for slipping on the immaculately maintained non-slip flooring. Let’s peruse, shall we? Continue Reading »

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Aug 08 2008

Medicine is the Killer App For Technology

I’ve met quite a few people who feel that civilization was a mistake. Technology in particular, they say, is bad in some way. If they’re an anarcho-primitivist theorist, they’ll tell you it’s alienating: it creates hierarchies, produces psychological illusions of scarcity, and turns us into little more than specialized insects. If they’re less geeky and more hippie, they’ll just expound on how happy they were living in that rural Indian village, how spiritual that life was, how much more natural a world without technology would be.

In the bright Nepali sunshine, sipping chai in a tourist cafe overlooking the lake, I found I could not agree, no matter how cute the dreadlocked girl sitting across from me. I see a lot of idealism and projection in her arguments. I also see an iPod in her bag. But neither could I come up with a concrete reason to insist that technology is fundamentally good, that the human race should invest as heavily in technology as it has. I admit that I really enjoy both the intellectual playground of technology and the fruits it brings, but that’s no way to form a moral imperative.

Until Ethiopia. I was working on a trachoma epidemiology study. This is an ancient, simple disease, and so fragile that the merest hint of civilization will destroy it — we’re not quite sure why yet. It could be antibiotics used for other things wipes it out, it could be that just washing your hands daily in clean water prevents its spread. But if left untreated long enough, this feeble disease will make you blind.

I had the cliché moment. I hiked out across the roadless wilderness to that idealized little village, that tiny traditional portion of the way we used to live. The simple folk gathered round us, gazing strangely at our white skin and synthetic fabrics. In turn we stared at their traditional cotton garments and coarse shiny jewelry, artifacts of a society that makes everything with its own hands. We stood a moment in that field, contemplating one another across vast distances of education and context. Then I looked into the scarred corneas of a blind young man and felt suddenly: this sucks. This man cannot see, for no reason at all. Extremely simple medicine could have prevented that.

It’s one of those moments when you realize that you’re not okay with the world as it is.

Medicine is good because health is good. I see no other way to draw this conclusion. And medicine is technological. Antibiotics are in no sense natural, x-rays and heart transplants less so. Medicine is the moral justification for continued technological development and dissemenation. It’s the killer app for technology, because it’s not just medical technology that must be known: modern medicine requires an entire technological infrastructure to design and manufacture its many, many inputs. Computers. Polymers. Superconducting magnets. Refrigerators to make the ice to keep cold our collected samples, and enzymes to do the PCR to detect the trachoma DNA, mathematics to do the statistical analysis to determine if our mass antibiotic distribution is actually denting the epidemic. It takes a world to raise a hospital.

That’s the moral reason for continued technological development. That blind man. Go tell his mother that we’d all be happier as hunter-gatherers.

Of course, that’s not why we actually will continue to develop our technology.

In the late afternoon sunlight I lounged against a tree, waiting for the last few villagers to show up so we could test them. They had fed us some (traditional, natural, idealized) beer, and I was sleepy and idle. I extracted my MP3 key from my kit and put the headphones in, leaned back to something relaxed. A kid came up to me, looking expectantly. He must have been about twelve.

“MP3 player?” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“How many gigabytes?” he asked. Then: “I want one.”

I find it hard to disagree with him.

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Jul 10 2008

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 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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Jun 25 2008

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.

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Jun 17 2008

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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