Category Archives: Social

Saigon, Soon gone

I think I really like Vietnam!  Or at last the centers of a couple major cities.  I met up with Semee, whose grant is funding our travel, on Saturday night.

So far, I've spent two days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), in the south, and Hanoi, in the north.  Saigon's center has wide streets and wide parks, lots of modern conveniences and lots of cultural institutions.  On Sunday, we wandered around Saigon's "old city", seeing the Reunification Palace (the underground bunker is a trip!), the Museum of Fine Arts (quite good!), and the copious parks.  The lush parks are filled with individuals and groups playing games, learning guitar, studying, lounging.  And the birds here sing on the Pentatonic scale!  One was going C-G-E-D-C'.  It's like a picture of utopia.

On Monday morning, before having our first interview at an apparently deserted and gutted university, we went on a boat tour down the Mekong, to a floating temple plastered in painted-dish mosaics.  The tour was supposed to include an island town, but there's some problem with the bridge there (an odd story, since we were in a boat), so we just went to a posh riverside hotel instead.

The streets are nerve-wracking, but not as bad as Cairo.  Very few intersections have signals.  The typical approach to crossing the street involves moving very slowly and trusting that the constant flow of traffic will move around you.

Vietnam loves its coffee.  There are multiple coffee shops on every block, and half the time people just get their coffee from vendors huddled on plastic stools on the sidewalks (the same place they get their food and haircuts and park their motorcycles).  I'm a little confused about it though, since Vietnam coffee is all Robusta, which my coffee books have been railing against.  But it tastes good to me.

Australia 3: Into the outback

[NB: I'm now in Saigon and getting ready to leave it, but I wrote this on the flight here and forgot to post.]

My calves are killing me.  I decided to spend Friday exploring, starting with Mt. Coot-tha, a bush reserved 8 km from Brisbane city center.  On the way, I stopped at Brisbane's real botanical gardens, at the base of the mountain.

As opposed to the gardens in the city center, these actually have a range of plants.  Quite a range, in fact: plants from arid, temperate, and tropical of Africa, the Americas, and, of course, Australia.  Only about a third of plants seemed to be Australian, but those were the ones the signs gushed over.  Excerpts from travel diaries, aboriginal uses, Australian history, kids games.  And there were bush turkeys everywhere, including one that seemed to have been working for hours on moving all of the dirt on the side of one of the paths to cover one of the paths.
I begged my way on to the bus that went the rest of the way to the top, where trails started, not realizing that it was the last bus of the day.  So, after looking out over the city and walking halfway down the mountain and back on trails, I realized my predicament.  I asked a store-keep how to get down now that the buses had stopped.  "Waulke", she said, looking very apologetic.
So I walked.  I only had to go about 4 km before coming to a train station to take me the rest of the way in, but after traipsing around the gardens and walking trails all day, it was 4 km too much.  I got a grocery store salad on the way home, did my laundry, and went to bed.

Australia 2: Big islands make you feel small

I did my presentation today, successfully, so I’ve earned my dinner.  So to speak– since my dinner consists of an extra sandwich I nabbed from the lunch buffet (they always seem to have three times too much food).  I think I’ll call it my last day of IIFET.  There are two more sessions tomorrow, but this is my only opportunity to see a bit more of Australia.

Australia, not surprisingly, is colossal.  For the dozens of reserves, sanctuaries, and national parks within striking distance, the town that marks the entrance to any proper rainforests or a visit to the reef is 29 hours away (same state though).  I’m torn between Moreton Island, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, and Mt. Coot-tha Reserve for tomorrow.

Yesterday, I hung out with the world record holder for circumnavigating the globe in the smallest vessel.  A couple years after doing this, he met his now-wife, who traveled South America with my aunt, trying to discover a solution to food security in the 1970s in the plant of amaranth.  We went to the Powermill, a gutted powerhouse that sat unused for years and now is an art-space and bar-restaurant complex.  Then to Farm Valley, famous for good restaurants for good Indonesian food, and the next door to much better gelato.

I have some pictures (not many, not much sight-seeing), but my backpacker’s hostel net connection is not far from excruciating.

Queensland, Brisland

My first day in Australia, operating on plane sleep over an endless night.  But whatever hardship I expected from traveling in a foreign place, whatever vestige of roughness I expected from Australia's history, there was absolutely none.  Brisbane is one of the most friendly, modern towns I've ever visited.

I visited the botanical garden in the city center, but it is mostly just a park.  But I also visited the South Bank park, which was so, so much more than a park– with covered piazzas and man-made beaches and the Brisbane Eye.

It still seems foreign though, with its whale-song warblers, wandering giant ibises, big leaves.  And a cat just climbed into my room.

Coffee is all the rage here, with tons of roasters, and one of the chains is just called "coffee is my life".  I had, I think, the best cappuccino I've ever had (not difficult, given that it's been like my 6th to date), but the dusting of cocoa added a whole new level to it.

The rumors of expensive food seem to be right– there are tons of eateries, but the "lunch specials" tend to be $10-15.  Other expectations seem to be different too.  I was encouraged to invite people into my room.  Indigenous people are really a concern that's one people's minds.  And people can't seem to decide whether it's "so cold", like they were saying this morning, or if Brisbane has "perfect winter weather", drawing people out to sidewalk tables, like my [new] guidebook says.

My last activity of the day was the opening reception for the conference that brought me here, at 5pm.  I went, I had a glass of wine and an hors d'oeuvre, spoke with one person, played with the cool technology screens, and left.  I blame jet lag, though I've never really figured out how to do these conference receptions.

Hammocks and Callings

When a colleague of mine was asked what she'd be doing at her new job in Sweden, she answered, "I'll wake up each day and decide on the most important thing I could work on, and work on it, as long as it seems important, and then do something else."

The life of an academic is a pretty sweet deal– if sometimes brutal and dehumanizing. I answer to no one, no one sets my research agenda for me, and my only job to understand and think deeply about important issues. And between climate change, ecosystems, complexity, and the rest, the opportunities for doing that abound.

But this isn't what I want to do. I would much rather spend my time making art, snoozing in hammocks, writing sci-fi short stories, acting in local theater. Unfortunately, we're called on to pull the world back on track. If the world didn't have such strong drives toward persistent inequality and progressive exploitation, if the ethical demand wasn't there, we could seek a greater joy.

And yeah, yeah, seeking joy supports our capacity for ethical acts, and is an ethical act in itself. Maybe I'm wrong to spend my time at a monitor every day. Or maybe I would want to do it even if I didn't need to. But I don't really think so. I think we are asked to serve, because this isn't a utopia.

The challenges of this paradox– which I think are the challenges of really living– are quickly overshadowed by the challenges of actually doing the job that we think we're compelled to do. I don't often take the time to think deeply or to understand. I get quickly caught up in the action, which never seems to let up. One project leads to another, before the first ever finishes.

At a recent count, I'm working on 20 projects with 20 coauthors (not one-to-one, not including large groups). And I always want to join more. This isn't about the challenges of being overwhelmed with self-imposed work. But the self-imposed work is the fun and the futility, and pretty far from the final end.

I think I like hammocks and short stories because they're ends in themselves, rather than means to other means. But helping the world isn't about ends. The challenge is just to make sure that the ends get more time than discussions by water coolers and post on LJ and witty replies about new jobs.

Useful Tools: Planet

I’ve tried a number of feed readers, but I have some private feeds that I don’t want to run through any public systems, so for several years now (possibly since 2006), I’ve used Planet. Planet is a python script that churns out a combined feed as a webpage. Today I stripped out the private feeds and split the blogs I follow into Friends (and Communities), and News (and Webcomics).

A lot of the links have broken over the years, but I’m always adding more even if I don’t have time to read the ones I already have. Take a look, and fill me in on friends and good material on the interweb that I’m missing!

A bonus tool, I’ve been using the perl XML:RSS library to generate a bunch of RSS feeds where they’re missing, or improve them if I don’t like them. To wit:

I also had feeds for only the comics in the Phdcomics feed and for Mark Fiore videos, but they’ve since broken.

Useful Tools: IFTTT

I’ve recently gotten very into IFTTT, a tool for creating custom triggers– on anything from posting on my LJ to entering 50 m of my work– and performing custom actions– anything from copying the post to my WP blog to adding an event to my calendar. Take a look at How to Be 100x More Productive: The 35 Best IFTTT Recipes to get a sense of the usefulness.

It has limitations: I can’t trigger an arbitrary API call or post to more than one WP account. But it’s getting there.

Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States

Next Thursday I’ll be in DC for one of the briefings on a big report I’ve been helping write. The event is at Resources for the Future– feel free to join in.

A Discussion of the Independent Risk Assessment for Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States

How much economic risk does the nation face from the impacts of climate change? The Risky Business initiative—a project of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Office of Hank Paulson, and Next Generation—works to answer that question. Using the best information available, the initiative outlines the range of climate futures that the United States might expect in major economic sectors and by geographic region. It also examines the likelihood of these futures and the potential economic consequences for American businesses and households. The initiative does not advocate any particular policy, industry, or personal response to climate change but instead seeks to provide government, finance, business, and household decisionmakers with the information necessary to make their own risk management decisions.

At this RFF seminar, Trevor Houser, lead author of the independent risk assessment supporting the Risky Business initiative, and his colleagues will present an overview of the methods, data, original research, and key findings in the assessment. A panel of experts will then offer additional perspectives.

Marine Protected Nation

Obama plans to extend the marine reserve around the Pacific Remote Islands Area out to the 200 nautical mile limit of the US’s jurisdiction, doubling global marine reserves:

If we ignore these problems, if we drain our oceans of their resources, we won’t just be squandering one of humanity’s greatest treasures, we will be cutting off one of the worlds major sources of food and economic growth,” he said.

“This is incredibly significant and shows global leadership from the US on this issue” said Karen Sack from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“There is an amazing array of biodiversity around these islands, there are sea mount systems with a lot of deep sea species, all types of marine mammals.”