from Baltimore to Central America via David Simon's imagination

David Simon, creator of The Wire and newly minted MacArthur Fellow, is interviewed by Bill Moyers in Guernica. It's one of the best things I've read in quite a while.

David Simon: You talk honestly with some of the veteran and smarter detectives in Baltimore, the guys who have given their career to the drug war, including, for example, Ed Burns, who was a drug warrior for twenty years, and they’ll tell you, this war’s lost. This is all over but the shouting and the tragedy and the waste. And yet there isn’t a political leader with the stomach to really assess it for what it is.

Bill Moyers: So whose lives are less and less necessary in America today?

David Simon: Certainly the underclass. There’s a reason they are the underclass. We’re in an era when you don’t need as much mass labor; we are not a manufacturing base. People who built stuff, their lives had some meaning and value because the factories were open. You don’t need them anymore.

When I first moved to Baltimore I avoided watching The Wire for several months because I didn't want it to color my first impressions, and I've still only had time to watch the first season. But based on that alone, The Wire was a work of art, and one that was always risky in terms of commercial success because of the length of its story arcs.

A while back Kottke highlighted Simon's original pitch for the series (emphasis added):

But more than an exercise is realism for its own sake, the verisimilitude of The Wire exists to serve something larger. In the first story-arc, the episodes begin what would seem to be the straight-forward, albeit protracted, pursuit of a violent drug crew that controls a high-rise housing project. But within a brief span of time, the officers who undertake the pursuit are forced to acknowledge truths about their department, their role, the drug war and the city as a whole. In the end, the cost to all sides begins to suggest not so much the dogged police pursuit of the bad guys, but rather a Greek tragedy. At the end of thirteen episodes, the reward for the viewer -- who has been lured all this way by a well-constructed police show -- is not the simple gratification of hearing handcuffs click. Instead, the conclusion is something that Euripides or O'Neill might recognize: an America, at every level at war with itself.

And not just with itself. The Guernica interview I quoted from above resonated with me because I had just finished this Economist article on "Central America: the tormented isthmus" which outlines the many ways in which America's appetites and means result in our internal war being continuously foisted upon other countries.

Nearly all the world’s cocaine is produced in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. The biggest consumer is the United States, where the wholesale price of a kilo of the stuff, even full of impurities, starts at $12,500. The route to market used to run from Colombia to the tip of Florida, across the Caribbean. But the United States Coast Guard shut down that corridor by the early 1990s, and shipments switched to the Pacific coast of Mexico. Now Mexico, too, has increased the pressure on the traffickers, just as Colombia has done in the south.

Ever supple, the drugs business has sought new premises. Somewhere between 250 and 350 tonnes of cocaine—or almost the whole amount heading for the United States—now pass through Guatemala each year, according to American officials...

The impact has been lethal. Guatemala’s murder rate has doubled in the past decade. In both Guatemala and El Salvador, the rate of killing is higher now than during their civil wars.

The comments on that article led me to this BBC article from April 7, on the drug-fueled violence in Mexico.

This view [that the violence is the result of fighting between rival criminal gangs, a sign of progress in the drug war] was echoed by the head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele Leonhart, at an international conference in the Mexican City of Cancun on Wednesday.

"It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs," the DEA chief said.

And that must also mean that the increasing violence in Central America due to shifts in drug trafficking patterns is truly a sign that we're winning the future. If this is success, maybe we'd all be better of with failure.


I saw this anti-war poster next to the Hopkins shuttle stop in Baltimore:

A mixture of probably true and not-so-true rhetoric about Libya. It's about oil! Well, partly -- but a single intervention can have multiple motivations, both humanitarian and otherwise. And then: "Attacking LIBYA is Attacking AFRICA!" which is helpfully illustrated with a map of Libya showing that it's, well, in Africa. This is a fascinating reimagination of the "all Africa is the same" meme. Another interesting observation: the poster is all about the Pentagon, with no mention of President Obama.

On the other hand, I think anti-war voices are healthy and helpful, even if the rhetoric is misguided. I'm torn on the Libyan intervention -- I believe it's justified, but I'm deeply worried about what happens next. Sometimes there are no good options, and the best possible option (intervening) can still lead to terrible outcomes.

Kristof provides this powerful justification that I can't get away from:

I’ve seen war up close, and I detest it. But there are things I’ve seen that are even worse — such as the systematic slaughter of civilians as the world turns a blind eye. Thank God that isn’t happening this time.

But another valuable voice is Alex de Waal, who doesn't have quite the audience of Kristof. De Waal shares these troubling thoughts:

Much of Libya is now ungoverned. That is particularly true of southern Libya. There has been little attention to the towns of the south, such as Sebha and Kufra, with no international correspondents there. These places are matters of great concern to neighbouring governments such as Niger, Chad and Sudan, because these towns have served as the rear base for armed rebellions in their countries, and rebel leaders still reside there. Gaddafi’s opening of the Libyan arsenals to anyone ready to fight for the regime, and the collapse of authority in other places, means that such rebels have been able to acquire arms and vehicles with ease. [....]

I spoke with one African military officer who welcomed the NATO action in Libya, saying “nothing could be worse than Gaddafi.” I suggested that he wait and see.

Update: Andrew Sullivan links to Daniel Larison's critique of Kristof's view that the intervention averted civilian slaughter:

Saying that the war has averted a humanitarian catastrophe is an extremely useful claim, and there’s no obvious way to disprove it. Outside governments intervened, and a humanitarian catastrophe hasn’t happened, and supporters of the war take it for granted that one would have happened otherwise. Of course, this is why they supported the war, but this points to the dilemma that humanitarian interventionists have. If they intervene in a timely fashion and don’t make the situation drastically worse in the process, there is nothing concrete they can point to that vindicates the decision.

Monday Miscellany

Bad news: 3rd term final exams and projects are this week at JHSPH. Good news: next week is Spring Break! Some links for the week:

Japan: Hard to think of good things in the wake of tragedy, but it could have been much worse: Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes.

On GAVI: Some coverage by Tom Paulson of Seth Berkley's appointment as the new CEO of the GAVI Alliance, which funds vaccinations in many developing countries. Paulson also links to a thought-provoking read, "Six Ideas and Questions for GAVI's New CEO," by Amanda Glassman of the Center for Global Development, and an article Paulson wrote on the early days of GAVI. (And I spent a good chunk of my weekend working on a paper comparing policy alternatives for GAVI's co-financing policy for a class taught by @orinlevine.)

Cote d'Ivoire: Close to half a million people have been displaced by the Cote d'Ivoire crisis so far.

Microcredit: Is microfinance a neoliberal fairtytale?

Baltimore: David Simon (creator of The Wire) on the drug war in Baltimore and beyond.

Refugees: Jina Moore with this disturbing story: "Why an American lawyer is pulling the plug - literally - on a Rwandan refugee."

Rwanda: The Trouble with Rwanda by Lindsay Morgan.

Religion (or lack thereof): Sociological Images presents demographics of the non-religious.

Random: The blog Best of Wikipedia has been on a roll lately: see Errors in the US Constitution, dihydrogen monoxide hoax, and Mozart and scatology (ie, toilet humor).

Academic vs. Applied Epi

Third term courses (January through mid March) started back up on Monday. It's amazing how quickly my schedule filled back up with classes, readings, seminars, meetings with students about internship opportunities, TA work, and Student Assembly work. But today I have good news and bad news. The good news: no class because it's a snow day after Baltimore got 5-6" of snow last night. The bad news: my power got knocked out (by the snow or the lightning, hard to tell which) so now I'm stuck staying with friends until I get heat, electricity, and wireless back. Oh well. I have some more substantive posts in the works including two book reviews (The Panic Virus and The Emperor of All Maladies) but here's something short for now.

In my first two terms at Hopkins I took Epidemiologic Methods I and II, the first two of a four-part series on methodology for epidemiology investigators. The methods taught were mostly related to large-scale, long-term studies on the etiology of noninfectious diseases. It's important and challenging stuff because the reality of so many diseases is very complicated, but the emphasis is also quite different from what I envision myself focusing on after grad school.

This term I'm in a brand new class called Professional Epidemiology Methods, the first of a two-part series that emphasizes how epidemiology is generally used in public health practice. To get an idea of the differences between these approaches, Dr. Carlos Castillo-Salgado of PAHO (who, with an MD, JD, MPH, and DrPH, gets the coveted unofficial award for "most degrees of faculty at JHSPH," which is quite an accomplishment given the degree proliferation in public health!) used the following table (click for larger version):

It seems that most graduate training epidemiology related more strongly to the right column -- academic epidemiology. That's vital research of course, but I'm glad to get some additional training oriented at the more applied aspects of epidemiology that I imagine I'll use more often while working on projects.

Mapping Race in Baltimore

The New York Times has a new interactive feature up, called Mapping America: Every City, Every Block. It uses "local data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, based on samples from 2005 to 2009." The data includes income and education levels by census tract, which is interesting but not that visually stimulating, and the more striking data on race by household in each census tract. Areas with higher population density are typically easier to work with -- try New York City for starters. My current home, Baltimore, makes a great test case. On these maps, each circle represents 50 households. (As you zoom further out, you start seeing counties instead of census tracks, and each dot represents many more households.)  A screenshot:

By race, blue = black, green = white, red = Asian, yellow = Hispanic.

For those unfamiliar with Baltimore, that's the Inner Harbor at the bottom. As you can see, the neighborhoods just southwest (Federal Hill) and north (Canton, Fells Point) of the harbor are predominantly white. The relatively sparsely populated section in the center is the more commercial downtown. East and West Baltimore are predominantly black. The green (ie, white) strip in the center is Mt. Vernon, whereas the area at the center top with more green (white) and red (Asian) includes the Charles Village neighborhood, where Hopkins' Homewood undergraduate campus is located.

The Johns Hopkins medical campus, including the School of Public Health where I'm a student, is in the predominantly blue (black) area on the middle right of the map above.

One thing that struck me as odd at first is that there are a bunch of green dots (ie, white households) in the middle of Patterson Park, the big green space included in this zoomed in map:

On further thought, I think the maps are showing averages of the data from the entire census tract. The tract that includes Patterson Park also includes some surrounding blocks, which are predominantly white. The distribution of differently colored dots on the map represents the race breakdown within that tract, but the location  of the dots within the tract on this map is completely random. If you play with the tool, you'll find that tracts are highlighted when you mouseover them, and that the spacing of dots within the tract is uniform -- this also accounts for the sudden changes in density you see in some places at the edges between tracts.

Finally, below is a closeup of the area I live in. At the top center of this map is Charles Village (including the Hopkins undergraduate campus). I live near 25th street, which bisects this map horizontally, in the transition between the predominantly white and Asian area in Charles Village and the mostly black neighborhoods in between Mt. Vernon and Charles Village:

h/t @edwardcarr