Archive for September, 2010

The market at Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango, a highland town in Guatemala, is renowned for its market, which takes place every Thursday and Friday. It’s a mix of touristy fare (lots of fabric, plus some carvings and jade) and things marketed to Guatemalans (lots more fabric, and food):


09 2010

Confronting ourselves

The Independent’s Johann Hari interviews Gideon Levy, a controversial Israeli critic of Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories. An excerpt:

He reported that day on a killing, another of the hundreds he has documented over the years. As twenty little children pulled up in their school bus at the Indira Gandhi kindergarten, their 20 year-old teacher, Najawa Khalif, waved to them – and an Israel shell hit her and she was blasted to pieces in front of them. He arrived a day later, to find the shaking children drawing pictures of the chunks of her corpse. The children were “astonished to see a Jew without weapons. All they had ever seen were soldiers and settlers.”

And another:

Levy uses a simple technique. He asks his fellow Israelis: how would we feel, if this was done to us by a vastly superior military power? Once, in Jenin, his car was stuck behind an ambulance at a checkpoint for an hour. He saw there was a sick woman in the back and asked the driver what was going on, and he was told the ambulances were always made to wait this long. Furious, he asked the Israeli soldiers how they would feel if it was their mother in the ambulance – and they looked bemused at first, then angry, pointing their guns at him and telling him to shut up.

“I am amazed again and again at how little Israelis know of what’s going on fifteen minutes away from their homes,” he says. “The brainwashing machinery is so efficient that trying [to undo it is] almost like trying to turn an omelette back to an egg. It makes people so full of ignorance and cruelty.” He gives an example. During Operation Cast Lead, the Israel bombing of blockaded Gaza in 2008-9, “a dog – an Israeli dog – was killed by a Qassam rocket and it on the front page of the most popular newspaper in Israel. On the very same day, there were tens of Palestinians killed, they were on page 16, in two lines.”

I’m trying to imagine how the American public would react if the front pages always carried news of the latest Afghan “collateral damage” — not just the numbers, but real, humanizing stories. For that matter, if we saw graphic coverage of the damage done to US soldiers and contractors, might things change?

Certainly one reason the American polity has been able to happily go about its business while we’ve waged devastating wars in two countries is that, by and large, Americans don’t hear about the damage we inflict. Yes, we see a bit of political analysis (“How will this affect the election?”) and occasional stories about US casualties (“Three soldiers killed in a helicopter crash”), but we’re not forced to confront the hundreds of civilian casualties from stray bombs and bullets and germs in any serious, compelling way. That complete lack of confrontation, more than any bias in the stories that do get coverage, allows the tragedy of our foreign adventures to continue.


09 2010

On war journalism, truth-telling, and independence

I read a few things recently that I thought were worth highlighting. The first is a bit of historical background on the brutality of war: an Atlantic article from 1989 on World War II and how its reality differed from its presentation to civilians in propaganda back home. I wonder to what extent movies like Saving Private Ryan have changed this perception. I read it a few days ago, and was reminded of it when I read a letter to Andrew Sullivan from a combat vet:

“You see what you’re sending us to do? You see who is dying because you support a war in a part of the world you know nothing about?” The ignorance of the population is so vast that when I was deploying to Iraq and (thankfully) coming back, as I passed through Atlanta-Hartfield, people would congratulate me and my fellow servicemembers, shake our hands, say thanks, etc., and all I wanted to do was scream at them, “Get educated you ignoramus! This isn’t a great thing; it’s futile!”

In tangentially related news, Pro Publica has a new report showing that contractor deaths are exceed military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, the number of casualties haven’t necessary dropped because more of the jobs that would have traditionally been done by soldiers are now being done by contractors / mercenaries.

And even more tangentially, some historical context for how intertwined our media and military / intelligence establishments can be: more than 400 American journalists have carried out assignments for the CIA in the last 25 years. This sort of line-blurring is understandably problematic for both journalistic integrity and issues of access, somewhat analogous to how militaries co-opt the independence of humanitarian and public health workers in war zones.


09 2010

Monday Miscellany

  • Stuxnet may be the first true cyberweapon — a computer virus transmitted through USB drives (meaning that it can infect computers not connected to the ‘Net) that targets computers controlling industrial systems. More here.
  • Which guy is more brave? The one who jumps on a grenade and shields his buddies from the explosion with his own body? Or the guy who jumps on the grenade to shield his friends, and then realized the grenade was a dud? How often do we judge actions using information we didn’t have at the time?
  • Did you know that defenestration is the act of throwing something (or someone) out a window, and such acts sparked several wars? Wikipedia has a whole list of “notable defenestrations in history.
  • Dan Ariely writes about plagiarism and how he bought essays from several “essay mills.”Teachers shouldn’t be too worried about these, unless they can’t distinguish text like this from their normal students’ writing:

    “Cheating by healers. Healing is different. There is harmless healing, when healers-cheaters and wizards offer omens, lapels, damage to withdraw, the husband-wife back and stuff. We read in the newspaper and just smile. But these days fewer people believe in wizards.”


09 2010

Volcanoes & Panoramas

This summer I climbed Volcan San Maria, above Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala, on my second day in town. I took a series of photos from the summit looking back towards Xela, and my dad stitched three of those together using Panorama Maker 4 by Arcsoft. The result (click for the full-size image):

And here are a couple shots from later in my trip, from on top of Volcan San Pedro looking down on the beautiful Lago de Antitlan:


09 2010

Information flow audit

Over the last year I’ve become increasingly interested in intentionally shaping my information intake. We have access to much more material than we can ever process, from breaking news, blogs, books and magazines. That’s been true since the advent of the printing press, but the internet has accelerated that process exponentially.  Just randomly clicking on whatever catches my eye isn’t enough; I want a process that helps me prioritize so that I have both a solid grounding in what’s going on in the world — news, politics, science, international development — but still gives me time to get more in-depth. It’s a constant struggle where intellectual curiosity is both your friend and your enemy.

This post is my first attempt to audit my personal information flow. For the most part, I’m excluding things my friends recommend (by email or through Facebook), which typically go to the top of my reading queue. And I don’t yet have a very systematic process for selecting which books to read. I do keep a list of books I want to read in a Google doc. When someone recommends a book, I add it to this list, and then when I want to buy or borrow a book, I’ll usually scan the list to ensure I’m not forgetting something that I want to read more. Also, since I’m a grad student, readings for school – classes, seminars, and a work-study project – are taking an increasing amount of my brainspace, but I don’t have much control over that.

That excludes a good deal of reading, but still leaves a lot in, mostly websites and blogs. My RSS reader of choice is Google Reader, and I use it a lot. Some stats for the last 30 days:

That’s a lot of reading! Of course, not everything “read” was covered very thoroughly — it’s more likely an indication that I either read it, or saw enough of it to deem in uninteresting and worth of being marked read. Reader also informs me that since June 19, 2007, when I started using Reader, I’ve read a total of 61,602 items.

Over time I’ve tried to get more organized and disciplined, so that now I prioritize items as follows:

1. Highest priority: friends’ shared items. Google Reader tells me I currently follow 80 people, which means any items they choose to “share” in Reader will show up in my feed. However, only about a third of those people post regularly (more than monthly?) and I think on average I have about 10-15 items shared by friends in any given day. Maybe a third of these items are from feeds that I’m already subscribed too. The others give me a healthy – though small – dose of freshness (because I wouldn’t normally find those items), especially in terms of pop culture.

2. Next priority: aggregators. This has been the most important and difficult category to refine. I’m trying to locate RSS feeds that give an extremely broad overview of news and commentary, but keeping the total number of items to be read reasonable. In other words, if I read the aggregators category and nothing else, I feel satisfied that I’m getting a good overview of everything that’s going on. Right now this includes Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, NYTime’s home page feed, Long Form, and Jason Kottke. Sullivan writes original content and has an army of blogger underlings who help him highlight other memes; they also helpfully highlight and summarize debates raging within the blogosphere. I used to have the NYTimes, Washington Post, BBC, and Al Jazeera, but I found that a) it was impossible to cover all of that material on a regular basis, b) there was substantial, non-helpful overlap, and c) if something is really important, it will likely be mentioned by Sullivan or Kottke (or other blogs listed below). Long Form aggregates great long-form journalism, a genre I really enjoy; for more on how it got started, the Observer has a feature. And finally, Kottke is a true aggregator, writing little original material but linking to what he describes as “the liberal arts 2.0.”

As you can see, I spend the bulk of my Reader time on the aggregators, reading 952 + 738 + 98 + 89 = 1877 articles from those four feeds, out of a total of 3659 articles (51.3% of my online reading).

3. Lower priority: specifics. I have a number of folders for more specific interests, listed in bold below. With few exceptions, these folders have one or two feeds that are popular and frequently updated and a long tail of rarely updated, more obscure items. I won’t list the contents of each folder here, but if you’re interested just ask. My Rocketry folder illustrates one of the wonders of RSS feeds is that you can keep track of websites and blogs that may only update weekly, or monthly, or annually, without worrying about looking up all of their URL’s. This lets me keep up with general rocketry news through Rocketry Planet as well as the very high quality but infrequently-updated rocket blog by Greg Smith. Friends and Trumans contains personal and travel blogs by and about friends of mine or Truman Scholars. Hopkins and Public Health includes public health blogs (there are surprisingly few that I find very compelling, especially compared to fields like international development or politics) and job listings. Some good ones include Aetiology and Karen Grepin.  Other categories include: Grad Students and Research, Baltimore (I had a DC folder when I lived there, but follow DC local news mostly through my friends’ shared items now), Gender (including the always-great Sociological Images), Humor, Science, Politics, Uncategorizable, Arkansas and Harding (my alma mater), Atheism and Religion, Bloggers, Development, International Relations, and Tech. I can and probably should re-categorize the blogs from scratch, as many of those categories used to have more items but have been cut down recently.

Pros and Cons

My current “information flow” has several pros: I get a wide swath of internet news and writing, even if I just read my top few items. I’ve gotten the aggregators down to a level where I can read all of them 90% of the time, which feels about right. I also rarely see something in the news, or hear about a debate or trend in a magazine, that slipped through this primary filter.

On the downside, the longer tail of information is more difficult to handle. Even after months of working to eliminate it, there’s a lot of overlap — especially in certain categories like international development, where a few bloggers link to and post about the same things — that I think I can eliminate.

And then there’s confirmation bias. I follow one or two conservative friends on Reader, and find their shared items (especially a friend named Adam’s) to be a breath of fresh air, even though I often disagree. How to go about finding more high-quality material to challenge myself with is an ongoing problem — suggestions welcome.

I’d love to hear about how you organize and prioritize your online (or offline) reading. What solutions have you come up with? What did you try that didn’t work? I’m sure there are other as obsessed with this as I am.


09 2010

Reading room

The fourth floor of my school has two beautiful reading rooms with natural lighting. This week is midterms (the term system moves fast – midterms after just four weeks) and I already have my first paper (for Intro to International Health) and midterm (Biostats) out of the way. Tomorrow is a test for Epidemiology of HIV/AIDS, and Friday is the Epidemiologic Methods midterm. So I’ve been spending a lot of time enjoying the reading rooms, and not much blogging…

Looking up from inside one of the rooms:

And students learning stuff:

Thanks Uncle Mike.


09 2010

Grad school is…

Grad school is a battle between curiosity and productivity. Coursework can be conducive to learning — and especially to skill acquisition. Most students in international health programs — and all in my GDEC program — are currently taking Introduction to International Health with Prof. James Tielsch. The class has been excellent so far, with compelling (if sometimes controversial) lectures offering a broad overview of everything in global health. The grades for the course come exclusively from two papers, which are described in an exquisitely detailed 29-page section of the syllabus. The more I work on my paper, which focused on the Guatemalan health system, the more convinced I am that it’s excellent preparation for working on grant proposals. That doesn’t mean it’s fun — fitting your ideas into someone else’s boxes never quite approaches that level of enjoyment — but it’s a great skill to have.

But even the best considered assignment pails in comparison to the learning that occurs outside of class, and it feels like the requirement to be productive is always digging into my ability to actively feed my curiosity. During orientation, several professors said that they wished Hopkins would do abolish grades entirely; that worrying about grades was a detriment to their education, and it doesn’t really predict who will do well in public health. I can see how this would be true, as the times that I’ve felt that I’m absorbing the most have been when reading something inspired — but not required by — a class, usually something that grew out of a discussion question or a casual aside in a lecture. That, and the conversations and debates we’re having amongst ourselves…

Should male circumcision be the default in the US? In Africa? Is it OK to make different policy recommendations for different countries?  If so, how do you explain it to the shafted? Why do people care about maternal mortality more than other types of mortality? How do we think about causality? Are some lives worth more than other? Can a sense of humor survive in a morbid (and mortal) field like public health?


09 2010

Monday Miscellany

Stuff I like:


09 2010

Monday Miscellany

Happy Labor Day:


09 2010