Things I’ve Been Reading: Miami, Britain, Ebola

Photo of a sandy footprint

1. Miami, and delusion. Miami is sinking under water, and everyone pretends it’s not happening. My parents lived in Miami a few years back, and I noticed that myself. everyone went around living in the city – buying real estate, developing land, renovating houses on the beach – and nobody seemed to notice the city will be underwater very, very soon. And not in a mortgage sense. It’s a strange lesson in the human capacity to cling to the narrative that’s comfortable, not the narrative that contains any truth. The storm sewers of Miami Beach now flow backward and no one considers what that means.

2. Ebola. I made this argument in a fragmented way on twitter – Ebola could be a game changer. Alex Evans makes it better, on Global Dashboard. Ebola is a disease so terrifying and infectious that it makes the need for decent health systems compelling. The question is – will anyone actually be compelled?

3. Two incisive and very different takes on sexism from the New Yorker. First, an article about the British scholar Mary Beard, and how being a well-paid cisgender white person make misogyny slightly easier to handle. That sounds like a snarky description, but I believe Dr. Beard would agree with it. Next, the toxic stew of xenophobia and sexism that apparently led the British police to believe that eleven-year-olds can consent to sex. And, as I consider it, another example of the human need for comfortable narratives.

World Humanitarian Day

We are at a time of change and fear for the human race and all life on our planet. Climate change, globalization and its reversal, losses of biodiversity and the depletion of fossil fuels is making this world a very different place than it was even thirty years ago. We don’t know what our future will look like, and we don’t know if it will be pretty.

If there was ever a time when we all need help, it is now. If there ever was a time when we all need to help, it is now.

Today is International Humanitarian Day. It marks the anniversary of the Canal hotel bombing in Baghdad, and it honors the memories of all those who died trying to bring assistance to others and the efforts of those who are doing that work today. UN Diplomat Sergio de Mello died in the Canal hotel bombing. He bled to death, buried in rubble, and as emergency workers tried – and failed – to rescue him, this is what he said “Don’t let them pull out the mission because of this.”

Human beings, every single one of us, have the capacity to do great things. Just like Sergio de Mello, we can be powerfully unselfish and astonishingly brave. Aid workers aren’t superhuman; they’ll tell you that themselves. They’re just regular people doing important and dangerous work as best they can.

Right now, there is important work for all of us. Dangerous work, even. There’s a lot at risk. If we’re going to survive this global transition and create a future that’s healthy for everyone, we all need to be aid workers. We need to look at the world in a spirit of generosity and courage. We need to find the capacity we all hold to change the world for the better. Most of all, we need to stop simply discussing the problems in this world, and start taking action to solve them.

I wrote this post five years ago, for World Humanitarian Day 2009. It’s even more true now. Since I ended that post with a call to action, it’s only fair to suggest some things we can do:

Four ways to become a humanitarian:

1) Learn CPR, and start thinking of yourself as a first responder. That will make you capable of immediate help to someone in need, and it will lead you to look for other ways you can help other people. In the long run, it will shift your whole point of view.

2) Donate to international aid. I suggest MSF or International Medical Corps. (I worked for IMC once. They’re not perfect, but they’re good people.)

3) Find an advocacy organization you believe in, and join. Oxfam might be a good start.

4) Join the bone marrow registry for your country. 

photo credit: wikimedia commons

SWEDOW: Why are we so obsessed with giving away our old stuff?

I’ve always wondered about our obsession with sending old clothes overseas. No matter how many times the idea is debunked by experts and people who rant a lot, the idea doesn’t die. Why? What about giving away our clothes –and other stuff – is so emotionally important to us that we can’t let go of it?

I have come up with two theories.

Theory #1: In small communities, nothing goes to waste. You know who is wealthy and who’s in need. You can give old but still useful things directly to the people who can use them, because you know those people. They are your friends, neighbors, or family. You give a worn baby quilt to a family with new infant and no money for supplies. You give your broken bicycle to your neighbor with a workshop and he makes it into a handcart. It’s easy to identify the people who can use your things, because you know them. When you know names, faces, and histories, you can match your old stuff to the people who need it.

We miss that community, and we want to pretend it still exists. We convince ourselves we know our global neighbors well enough that we can give the personal (and painless) donation of an old pair of shoes instead of the formal (and more expensive) transfer of cash. We don’t want to give up our dream of a small world, so we act like we still live in one.

Theory #2: At some fundamental level, we understand that the American life of work/spend is bad for us. Being a consumer, and only a consumer, feels bad in some way we hardly notice and can’t articulate. Discarding our old stuff – especially when it still seems usable – makes that discomfort almost unbearable. Maybe we shouldn’t have bought that pair of uncomfortable shoes or the phone that went obsolete in two years. Maybe our lives shouldn’t revolve around buying things.

But we can’t, or won’t process that. And there’s no easy way to step off the work-buy-discard hamster wheel. So we send our old phone to Haiti and convince ourselves we’re philanthropists.

photo credit: me

Things I’ve been thinking 6/17/2014


“Don’t think about where the lines are drawn, think about who draws the lines.” I rarely agree with The Last Psychiatrist, but it’s my go-to source for question assumptions and making the world look different. I found this post especially thought-provoking. 

This long blog post about disease diagnostics got me wondering if we’ve been prioritizing all the wrong things when we talk about improving laboratory skills. 

And, then, finally, these two pieces about children in the US just flat out devastated me. It’s conclusive evidence that we cant go around doing development work as though the US is the top of a pyramid we want everyone else to ascend in a similar way. 1) One American child in eight will experience maltreatment (abuse or negligence) in their lifetime that is confirmed by authorities. ONE IN EIGHT. and 2) One American child in four is born into poverty.  There is something deeply, deeply wrong in the way the US values (or doesn’t) children.

(photo credit: me)

Baku, a Snapshot

1244 Some of you may have noticed I started using all my own pictures in this blog a while ago. I pull them from my Instagram, which is reasonably active. I have found taking pictures helps me think in new ways about the places I live. I always worried that photography would turn me into an observer instead of a participant, but it seems to be making me a better participant, instead.

I am going to start highlighting some of the pictures I’ve taken that really helped me do that. Not necessarily the nicest ones I’ve taken, but the ones that helped me think.

This photo, of the metro stop closest to my home in Baku, is one of about about twenty I took of that same place on different days. It just perfectly encapsulated the Baku experience for me, so I kept taking pictures. The metro, first. Because Baku is genuinely urban in a way that not all cities are. It’s dense, busy, and and full of traffic. It’s expensive, hard to drive in, and people live in apartments, not standalone houses.  It’s exactly the kind of place you picture when you think abstractly of city. The metro represents that to me.

Next, the minaret peeking out. Because Baku is a Muslim city, and forgetting that doesn’t help you understand Azerbaijan.

The construction, because Baku is a city in the middle of an oil boom.

And finally, the fountains. The Soviets were obsessed with building fountains in dry places, to display their generosity and the value of being  a citizen of a Soviet Republic. If you were part of the USSR, you got fountains in the desert. (And, for that matter, excellent public transportation.)

Things I’ve been thinking about: May 1st, 2014

1. Can Elinor Ostrom’s work help us understand what to do about antibacterial resistance? I’ve been reading a lot of Ostrom in an attempt to develop an opinion, but it’s tough going for me.  Econ was never my strong suit. Anyone smarter than me want to chime in and explain it?

2. How do we balance the importance of innovation and learning from our mistakes with the importance of not wasting our finite? Leaving room for failure is important, but people get hurt when we fail. It’s a confusing and ugly dilemma and it’s much less clear-cut than anyone wants to admit. Here’s one interesting take on failure.

3. Worms. The good and the bad. I am now the proud owner of a worm box for composting, which brings me a genuinely embarrassing amount of joy. I have also been thinking about helminthes – the intestinal worms that can lead to malnutrition or even death. I suspect we’re going to find out they matter a lot more for children’s health than anyone ever realized.

4. The new David Roodman / GiveWell report that finds that reducing child mortality does not lead parents to have fewer children. When I was writing What’s Killing Us, I looked for research linking reduced child mortality to a decrease in fertility rate. I assumed it was true. It seems true. Heck, it seems obvious. But I couldn’t any definitive research indicating it was true, so I left the claim out. Interesting to see that backed but by someone who did a serious study.

(photo credit: me)


All the cool kids have already written about this, but there’s a fun new book out on being an expat. It’s called Expat Etiquette: How to Look Good in Bad Places, and it was written by Michael Bear and Liz Good. They sent me a preview copy, and it’s a short, clever book that’s both fun and useful.

The first nine sentences make it clear what to expect:

 “Going overseas is hard. Leaving friends and family behind. Traveling to a country where you probably don’t speak the language, and definitely don’t understand the culture. Foreign foods, foreign diseases. Loneliness.

Of course, it does have its compensations. Smoking. Casual sex. Functional alcoholism.”

How can you not enjoy that book?

I particularly like the advice on haggling with taxi drivers:

“He – it’s invariably a he – will charge too much. Far too much. You have two options:

1. You can accept this with a zen-like state of calm. Counter-offer with half the fare. Settle on something like one-half to two-thirds of the original price.  Consider the overpayment your small contribution to the local economy. Smile.

2. Alternatively, you can get indignant. Let the cabbie know that you know that he’s overcharging. Say that you live here, that you know how much the cab fare should cost. Raise your voice.  Counter-offer with half the fare. Argue. Settle on something like one-half to two-thirds of the original price.  Spend the balance of the ride fuming over the fact that you were ripped-off.

Of course, none of this applies to your favorite cabbie – the one with whom you’ve developed a relationship, the one whose phone number is on speed-dial in your phone, the one who drives you around on a regular basis.  He’s still over-charging you, but his services are, on the whole, worth more than gold.  It is always important to find this favorite cabbie, and then be stingy about sharing his number with other expats. If you are too generous, within a matter of weeks he will be too busy to pick you up on time anymore, and you will be forced to find a new favorite.”

Expat Etiquette does have a certain self-published feel about it – I think one more edit could have tightened it up and made it read more smoothly. But it’s a useful, funny, little book and you can purchase it for just $3.49. Go buy it.

One final note: the book swings back and forth between sincere, useful advice and terrible satirical advice. I trust your ability to know which is which, but at least one Amazon reviewer did not.

Disclaimer: If you buy the book through my links, I will earn approximately 2.5 cents on your purchase. I promise not to spend it all on one place.