How to ignore your family on Thanksgiving

There has been lots of advice lately on how to have a civil conversation at Thanksgiving – NPR ran a piece yesterday on “topics both Democrats and Republicans enjoy”, for example, which made me slightly annoyed and amused – perhaps because I am neither – and inspired this somewhat alternative list of ways to enjoy or otherwise ignore your family today.

  • Football, obviously. Few people actually know the rules of this game, never mind the names of the various positions of the players on the field. I personally have been watching football for more than 20 years and I still really don’t know what a tackle or a tight end is, nor exactly how to recognize a blitz. No matter, that’s not the point. The point is to choose a team and root for them blindly. Ignore the long-term brain damage.
  • If you don’t like football, may I suggest An Idiot Abroad, a ridiculous travel show from Britain created by Ricky Gervais. It’s embarrassing and awkward, obv, so relative to those situations dinner with your family will seem seamless and well-meaning. I say this even though The Office, also developed by Ricky Gervais, was on NPR’s list. Also, having a The Office marathon is really not a bad idea either.
  • Drinking. Adults can go for beer and spiked eggnog, but kids can get totally spaced out with just the normal eggnog. I’ve seen it before, it has a crazy high, especially if you add nutmeg. Buy tons.
  • The above suggestions should keep you busy up to and including the beginning of dinner. Be sure you don’t actually talk before dinner, because then you’d run out of things to say during the eating part.
  • For the actual dinner conversation, may I suggest keeping things light. For example, I plan to provoke a fun-loving conversation on who thinks the Ferguson grand jury’s lack of indictment serves justice and who thinks it exposes a broken system. It comes down to who trusts the system and who the system works for.
  • If that seems awkward, move on to white privilege in general. If there’s a denier at the table, throw out some data: black teenagers are 21 times more likely to be killed by a cop than white teenagers, for example, or if that seems hyperbolic, move on to the social mobility matrices for blacks versus whites in Figures 8 and 9 of the appendix of this paper. Nice and aggregate. I plan to use a projector.
  • Hahaha, just kidding! We don’t want to scare the kids. Instead, we’ll stick to the usual, where we enormously overconsume and simultaneously discuss upcoming diet plans, and/or vivaciously and competitively plan our impending holiday shopping whilst worrying about money.
  • For a nice surprise, sign up your whole family for spots on the bus to participate in a Black Friday Walmart protest tomorrow morning in North Bergen, New Jersey. Bus leaves at 8am. Come one, come all!
Categories: #OWS, musing

Is tourism in Haiti inherently exploitative?

I recently returned from Haiti, where I was a tourist traveling around the country for 6 days with my friends Jamie and Becky. As I spent time there, I felt increasingly aware of the difficult if not miserable spot that the country as a whole finds itself in, even though there are of course wonderful and incredibly beautiful and creative things happening too: art is everywhere.

Everyone knows about the 2010 earthquake which devastated the capital Port Au Prince – which was indeed terrible and its ramifications are still being felt – that natural disaster is really only one more thing for the Haitians to deal with, on top of a long and excruciating history of manmade, political and human disasters.

I read the book Mountains Beyond Mountains while I was traveling, upon the recommendation of a bunch of my friends. It’s putatively the story of a white doctor from Boston, Paul Farmer, who is trying his best to enlist a growing group of doctors and philanthropists to help the deeply impoverished town of Cange in Haiti achieve state-of-the-art healthcare. It’s an impressive book, and beautifully written, and doesn’t shy away from frank discussions of how the United States has meddled with and manipulated the politics of Haiti to its own advantage. You should all read it.

One of the most memorable scenes from the book, at least for me, is when the writer discusses the juxtaposition of spending one day in Cange in Haiti and then flying directly to New York, or maybe Paris, but in any case a glamorous, rich, first-world city, and how it seems like two bizarrely separate worlds. Farmer says that no, in fact, it’s exactly what you’d expect – that there’s a direct line between the poverty of Haiti and the richness of New York. New York is rich in part because Haiti is poor, and we New Yorkers depend, even if invisibly, on exploitation of places like Haiti to stay rich. When you concentrate wealth in one place, you are concentrating poverty as well.

That brings me to my question today. Is it inherently exploitative to be a tourist in Haiti?

Reasons it is:

  1. First and foremost, as Americans we can choose to visit Haiti, and then return after 6 days. Haitians cannot choose to visit us for 6 days, even if they had the money to do it. And again, that discrepancy is directly due to U.S. foreign policy.
  2. American tourists like myself are impossibly rich and powerful compared to the people we interact with in Haiti. That creates a weird and deep distance between people. It means that everyone on the street is aware of me and nobody fucks with me because the consequences for them would be dire. That’s what power looks like. As a result, t may be impossible to actually have a normal human relationship with a native Haitian.
  3. As a white person, you pay something like 10 times the normal costs of anything, which is both strange and totally understandable, but in any case it means that you are seen as a piggy bank by anyone with a service or a good to sell, which is pretty much almost anyone you meet.
  4. There aren’t very many tourists in Haiti. All the white people we met there were there on religious or charitable missions, or worked for the UN, or were trying to set up businesses along the lines of Etsy for Haitian folk art, or are themselves art collectors. That adds to the uncomfortable sense of dependency you feel as a tourist.
  5. When you are at a hotel, you are being served by Haitians. It’s impossible not to see the historical racial symbolism of this, given that Haitians were brought from West Africa as slaves to the French, and not to mention the more recent history which has made American influence so undermining.
  6. There’s a reverse sex tourism industry in Haiti, which is to say that middle-aged white women are known to go to Haiti as well as the Dominican Republic to pay for sex with young men. That fact further clouds the possibility, at least for me, of even having a single conversation in which the goal is non-transactional. How do you know if your joke is actually funny? Or if the cultural exchange you are happily engaged in is truly reciprocal? How could it be?
  7. Conclusion: it is in fact inherently exploitative to be a tourist in Haiti, and it’s not something you can choose not to participate in.

On the other hand, here are a few reasons I’d argue against my own conclusion:

  1. First and foremost, you are what you are as an American, even if you’re not in Haiti. You are just more aware of what that means to Haitians when you are in Haiti. In other words, if the decadence of ample food, and wifi, and excellent health care is in part due to the impoverished state of Haiti, maybe it’s good you are made aware of that.
  2. Haitians desperately need money, and tourists have money. If lots of tourists went to Haiti, it might be better for Haiti than a bunch of money coming in the form of aid.
  3. My friend Becky came with us to Haiti, and she stayed a few extra days and connected with a Haitian biologist and nerded out completely in a national park (she’s a huge biology nerd and nature photographer). It seems to me that, if it is possible to cross the human divide, and get out of a transactional conversation and into another place, it might happen in the context of a scientific discussion.
  4. I’m not a biology nerd, but I love music. I felt like the closest I came to normal human interaction was through discussing and enjoying live music.
  5. It’s really fun to travel, even if you learn sad things. You become more aware and more grateful, and you bring that back to your community and your family. There’s something to be said for simple cultural awareness. Plus, now I really care about Haiti, which maybe is irrelevant, but may someday become relevant, who knows.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Update. A comment from Jamie:

Fundamentally, I do and always have agreed to your point of exploitation. I knew we would be weird voyeurs going in to the trip, and as we discussed on the last day, Cathy, we were both acutely aware of how it would look if we started taking pictures of Haitians and the streets from inside of our fancy 4-by-4. It’s a complicated dynamic. And I think you’re right that it is nearly impossible to have a normal, balanced relationship there; I felt similarly while traveling around West Africa. It’s like we have a bank account and a green card attached to our foreheads, and it can be difficult to trust that someone is seeing us beyond that. Even if they have no ulterior motives other than being our friend, that trust is hard to grasp and hang on to.
All of that said, however, I do believe that it is incredibly important to spend time in countries and cultures that are different from our own. And I believe even more fervently that we should visit those countries with a mind to experience and enjoy rather than “save” it through mission-based organizations. That’s not to say that all aid is bad aid (on the contrary, many aid orgs and NGOs are very, very important!), but I do push back against the notion that one should always attach a mission to a visit. I’ve found that going somewhere as a volunteer or aid worker puts an even bigger wall between cultures (“I am here to help you because I have the means to help you and it is clear you can’t help yourself”). I strongly believe that just sitting, listening, and learning without the motive to “save” is one of the only ways of conducting a fair and balanced cultural exchange. I want to listen first, not fix first. Once I listen, and begin to understand (as if I ever could…), only then do I feel comfortable enough to think about working in/for a country.
Additionally, on the notion of choosing to vacation in a non-traditional spot that is so clearly economically and politically struggling, is it better to only travel to first world, highly developed countries and ignore that others exist? Should we blindly trust the media (and all of our friends, relatives, etc) that constantly tells us that a country is “bad” and avoid them? How will we change the discourse surrounding cultural and economic imbalances without having any first-hand experience? Are we perpetuating a notion that we are “too good” to visit a country that is struggling to stand on solid ground?
It’s all a complicated notion. And on a specific note, I’d love to open the floor a little on your #5 exploitative point (“When you are at a hotel, you are being served by Haitians. It’s impossible not to see the historical racial symbolism of this, given that Haitians were brought from West Africa as slaves to the French, and not to mention the more recent history which has made American influence so undermining.”). True. I think it’s important that we are aware of that dynamic. On the other hand, what would it look like if we were being served by ex-pats? Would we not be rebelling that we are not supporting Haitians and the native economy? That the ex-pats are just making a place for other ex-pats to work and remove all Haitians from the operation? Tricky. I’m interested in hearing both of your thoughts on that.


Categories: Becky Jaffe, musing

P-values and power in statistical tests

Today I’m going to do my best to explain Andrew Gelman’s recent intriguing post on his blog for the sake of non-statisticians including myself (hat tip Catalina Bertani). If you are a statistician, and especially if you are Andrew Gelman, please do correct me if I get anything wrong.

Here’s his post, which more or less consists of one picture:

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 6.26.34 AM

I decided to explain this to my friend Catalina, because she asked me to, in terms she could understand as a student of midwifery. So I invented a totally fake set-up involving breast-fed versus bottle-fed babies.

Full disclosure: I have three kids who were both breast fed and bottle fed for various lengths of time and, although I was once pretty opinionated about the whole thing, I could care less at this point and I don’t think the data is in either (check this out as an example). So I’m not actually trying to make any political point.

Anyhoo, just to make things super concrete, I want to imagine there’s a small difference in weight, say at 5 years of age, between bottle fed and breast fed children. The actual effect is like 1.7 pounds at 5 years. Let’s assume that, which is why we see a blue line in the graph above at 1.7 with the word “assumed” next to it. You can decide who weighs more and if that’s a good thing or not depending on your politics.

OK, so that’s the underlying “truth” in the situation, but the point is, we don’t actually know it. We can only devise tests to estimate it, and this is where the graph comes in. The graph is showing us the distribution of our estimates of this effect if we have a crappy test.

So, imagine we have a crappy test – something like, we ask all our neighbors who have had kids recently how they fed their kids and how much those kids weighed at 5 years, and then we averaged the two groups. That test would be crappy because we probably don’t have very many kids overall, and the 5-year check-ups aren’t always exactly at 5 years, and the scales might have been wrong, or clothes might have been confusing the scale, and people might not have reported it correctly, or whatever. A crappy test.

Even so, we’d get some answer, and the graph above tells us that, if our tests are at a certain level of crappiness, which we will go into in a second, then very likely our estimate of the difference will come in between something like -22 pounds and +24 pounds. And the “most likely” answer would be the correct one, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s all that likely to even come close – say within 2 pounds – of the “true effect”. In fact, if you make a band of width 4 centered around the “true effect” level, you’d definitely capture a smallish percentage of the total area under the curve. In fact, it looks like a good 45% of the area under the curve is in negative territory, so the chances are really very good that the test estimate, at this level of crappiness, would give you the wrong sign. That’s a terrible test!

Let’s be a bit more precise now about what we mean by “crappy.” The crappiness of our test is measured by its powerwhich is defined as “the probability that it correctly rejects the null hypothesis – i.e. the hypothesis that the “true effect” is zero – when it is false.” In other words, power quantifies how well the test can distinguish between the blue line above and the line at zero. So if the bell curve were really really concentrated at the blue line, then more of the total area under the curve would be on the positive side of zero, and we’d have a much better test. Alternatively, if the true effect were much stronger, say at 25 instead of 1.7, then even with a test this imprecise, the power would be much much higher because the bulk of the bell curve would be to the right of zero.

On the one hand, power estimates are done by researchers, and they are attempting to achieve a power of at least 0.80, or 80%, so the above power of 0.06 is indeed extremely low and our test is indeed very crappy by researching standards. But on the other hand, since researchers are expected to estimate their power to be at least 0.80, there’s probably fudging going on and we might be trusting tests to be less crappy than they actually are. Also, I am no expert on how to accurately estimate the power of a test, but there’s an example here, and in general it depends on your sample size (how many kids) and the actual effect size, as we have already discussed. In general it requires way more data to produce evidence of a small effect.

OK so now we have some general sense of what “crappiness” means. But what about the red parts?

Those are the “statistically significant” parts of the distribution. If we did our neighborhood kids test and we found an effect of 20 or -20, we’d be totally convinced, even though our test was crap. There are two take-aways from this. First, that “statistically significant” in the presence of a small actual effect and a crappy test means that we are wildly overestimating the effect. Second, that the red part on the left is about a third of the size of the red part on the right, which is to say that when we get a result that seems “statistically significant,” in the presence of a crappy test, it still has a one in four chance of being totally wrong.

In other words, when we have crappy tests, we just shouldn’t be talking about statistical significance at all. But of course, nobody can publish their results without statistical significance, so there’s that.

Categories: Uncategorized

Aunt Pythia’s advice

November 22, 2014 1 comment

Greetings, friends! I’ve missed you all!

Since returning from her travels, Aunt Pythia has been continuously marveling in the wonders of flannel and wool, and has decided to knit up something along these Celtic lines:

Is that not gorgeous?

Is that not gorgeous? I love the tangled-upedness of the center. And, of course, the doubly rainbow-ic aspects.

Here’s the thing, though: the pattern comes from the excellent book Celtic Charted Designs that Aunt Pythia is absolutely sure she has somewhere in her house, but can’t find. in fact she’s spent the good part of the morning searching her house. So if the column is a wee bit short and/or frustrated today, you’ll know why.

On to business! Aunt Pythia has lots of questions to answer, given that she was away last week, and she’s eager to get through some. But before she forgets,

please think of something Celtic

to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What are your thoughts on this 401k article

Another Potential Pass At Legalizing Longterm Investments Not Going (well)


Wow, your sign off is longer than the body of you letter. Well done. OK so let me quote the heart of the problem fingered in the article:

Millions of people are clearly not using 401(k) plans as retirement accounts at all, and it’s a threat to their financial health.

I’d phrase it differently, namely:

In this day and age, working people need all their money, and 401(k) plans have proven to be saving strategies which are only realistic for well-off people, which entirely misses the point of how to deal with the older middle class in our country. Instead of relying on such wishful thinking, we should scrap the whole system, which by the way only serves to expand Wall Street’s power and give tax breaks to the rich, and we should instead expand Social Security.


Aunt Pythia


My Dearest Aunt Pythia,

In mid-90’s I completed class work on an MA in Applied Economics/Econometrics at a state school in California. Stupidly did not complete thesis (things got busy on political campaigns and such, and never got back to it). Like many I fell in love with economics, public policy, and their interrelations.

Now, many years later, my econometric/data/statistical modeling skills have aged with me and have become lost from my mind.

My first question is: What would you recommend as a refresher of data skills? I’m certain I don’t need to redo all I’ve done before- the skills are there but need to be refreshed and awakened (I assume/hope).

My second question is: Assuming the skills can be reawakened, what is my fastest and least costly method to enter data work? For programming many people create apps or small programs to be able to show code samples to prospective employers. Is there something analogous in data work? Should I build a model of aggregate demand changes from quantitative easing/M2 changes and shrinking consumer credit (from institutional rule changes) and post it online to show skills? I’ve also been looking at the data science certificate from Coursera/Johns Hopkins, but don’t know that it would matter on a resume. My old university requires restart for the old M.S. (which I understand), so should I pursue a new M.S. in current state school (UMUC has a Masters Data Analytics, which I think I would enjoy anyway, but is pretty pricy).

Anyway, hoping you, my dear Aunt, will have some advice for a data enthusiast with dusty data skills to freshen skills and move into analysis. Oh, I should mention that I am taking a lot of computer programming classes lately to get skills in that area as well.

Dusty Skills

Dear Dusty Skills,

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but the very first thing you need to do when applying for any data job is to use a spell-checker. I must have corrected 5 words in your letter.

Next, although I agree that a Coursera certificate might not be considered all that important, the skills you hopefully acquire with such a certificate would be. And yes, I do suggest you build something with your skills, although tackling QE seems both onerous and unlikely. I’d do something less abstract if I were you, and set up a website portfolio so everyone can see your mad skillz. Oh, and you might want to take a look at my book, Doing Data Science, although you might be past that stuff already.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

I’m a father whose daughter is applying to colleges. I also work at a college, as does my wife. And like many employees in academia, I’ve been following with horror the reports of college rape: the under-reporting, the Judicial review boards, the administrators eager to downplay the problem, etc.

As a father the horror easily spills over into terror. I want my daughter to grow into the challenges of living away from home; I want her to learn in a enlightening, and encouraging environment; and I want her to have fun. I also want her to be safe.

I am outraged at the clueless administration officials and public safety officers who say “girls should not go to parties, or drink,” all the while wanting to scream at my daughter “don’t go to parties or drink.”

How can I have a meaningful conversation about going off to college, learning, having fun, but be safe, without sounding like *those* administrators?

Worried In Academia


Dear Worried,

I went to college in the early 1990’s at UC Berkeley. My first year there was the scene of multiple Gulf War protests, and about 3 or 4 street riots, streaming by my dorm near Telegraph Ave, during which me and my two roommates didn’t dare leave our room. In my sophomore year we heard the Rodney King verdict and it was chaos in the streets for a few days.

I guess what I’m saying is that, due to the obviously volatile and threatening mood of the campus and neighboring towns back then, I was always on alert, and defensive. All of my friends took self-defense classes, and I carried around pepper spray, in my right hand, and my keys in my left, whenever I walked home at night. I biked places so I could get away more quickly. It was my assumption that I would need to protect myself and that there were people who would hurt me if I didn’t. I’m not saying there weren’t people who drank too much and got themselves vulnerable – in fact while I was there, there were multiple burning deaths in fraternities that did crazy things with couches – but that I personally would never have been involved with such stuff. For that matter there was a lot of campus rapes, which we knew about, and the police knew about, and kept us going to our self-defense classes.

Nowadays, we have a very different notion, and also a different reality, which is mostly a good thing, but has weird consequences. One of them is a sense that colleges are safe places, which they most certainly are not. College administrations have come a long way on marketing their campuses as attractive and safe, but it’s just a marketing thing, and it sends confusing and deeply mixed messages to parents and kids, which pisses me off. At the end of the day, when you go to college, you are an adult, and you need to be responsible for your safety, which means not getting out of hand, and keeping trustworthy friends close to you to make sure you don’t, and to make sure they don’t.

So, and I know this is a tough issue, but my advice is to tell your daughter to learn to size up the energy of a party, and see if dangerous things are happening, and to have a group of friends at all times that are looking out for you, and who you are looking out for, and to take self-defense classes, and to carry mace or at least a siren for when you travel alone at night.

Also, and this is actually the most important piece of advice: get your daughter to drink with you a few times, before she goes to college, so she’ll know what it feels like to have too much. The most educational night of my life was a night in the summer before college, when my dad got me and my friend Becky puking drunk. I never let that happen again, because I knew when I’d had too much. I think far too many kids get to college never having been allowed to go overboard with drinking, so they do it for the first time with strangers. Bad idea!

One last thing. I think that in the next couple of decades, the police will learn how to adequately and sensitively deal with rapes, and when that happens we won’t need to worry as much about campus police forces, which are totally inadequate and rife with conflicts of interest. But obviously you don’t have two decades to wait for that to happen, since your daughters are going to college now. Plus, I may be just being unrealistic about the progress we could make.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I keep hearing about how rampant sexism is in STEM fields, particularly in tech workplaces, where I can see myself heading toward after college. It’s really discouraging, especially since I think I experience some sort of sexism in my classes here in college (in computer science way more than in math), and even worse, I can’t seem to speak up because this kind of sexism is really subtle (i.e. a guy got angry with me for his incompetence with a certain technology. I would’ve spoke up but the assignment was worth so little.)

These hurtful incidences just build up over time, and whenever I vent to my friends, some “brush it off” as it not being serious. My parents told me that what I experience here in college won’t be any different in the workplace.

So as I search for summer internships, I carry this cloud of insecurity and doubt. Should I go forward? What’s the point? Breaking gender barriers sounds great, but my God, there are so many women out there who choose to leave because the barrier is so high and strong. I can easily see myself leaving the tech industry because its stubborn lack of support toward women and its more harmful PR farces showing that they do “support women.” Is it ever worth it? How do I reconcile with this?

Unsure of the future

Dear Unsure,

My motto is, celebrate the victories and ignore the defeats. Where by “victories” we mean “getting a computer program to work” and by “defeats” we mean “some insecure guy took out his frustration on me because I’ve got boobs.”

In other words, don’t think about yourself or your actions as A Woman In STEM. Instead, think about what your personal goals are, and what interests you, and what you’d like to learn about or accomplish. Make it an internal conversation about your wants and needs and passions, rather than an external conversation about how you look to other people. And if your internal voice is telling you to leave STEM, then by all means do it, but if not, don’t let those fuckers get you down. Do it because it’s cool and you love it, not because some assholes do or do not have an agenda for you or an ego riding on what and how you do things. Separate the two issues and it will help, because math and computer science are really cool.

And because it’s not always possible to totally ignore the defeats, I’d also encourage you to find better friends who will let you vent and will vent along with you. What’s up with them?!

Good luck, for reals! Keep me posted!

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Click here for a form.

Categories: Uncategorized

Guest Post: What does it mean to “create jobs”?

This is a guest post by FogOfWar.

The phrase is used constantly by politicians and economists, but what does it actually mean to “create jobs”?

Here’s an example: I open a coffee shop and hire two people. So I’ve created three jobs (counting myself), right? Really? Let’s assume for the moment that I’m no more or less efficient at making and distributing coffee than my competitors and also that the total amount of coffee required in the world is constant. Then my coffee shop must be taking customers away from another coffee shop, and at a frictionless level, there are three coffee jobs lost for the three coffee jobs I just created.

Yet no politician, and indeed no economist quoted on TV or newspaper, will go into the distinction between gross job creation (3) and net job creation (0). For politicians this makes sense because they want the appearance of good results to be reelected (and often nothing more than that). For economists, or at least economists dealing with journalists, it may well be that it just gets too fuzzy to make a simple point, and a story without a simple and strong hook is killed by your editor.

Another point: I can think of a specific example of something that really did “destroy jobs”–it’s the invention of the EZ Pass. When I was growing up (yes, I’m ancient), there were dozens of people working at each of the toll collection booths on the highways, each counting out miserable hours collecting change from surly passengers and inhaling vast amounts of carbon monoxide. Now there are a handful at each on ramp and a row of EZ-Pass computers.

There’s no question in my mind that EZ-Pass destroyed jobs, but this seems like a good thing rather than a bad thing. Should we strive to keep really crappy jobs that are obsolete by technology just so that people have something awful to do with themselves all day, instead of doing something equally unproductive like watching TV all day, or maybe even spending time with their families and community? I think this is a variation of the “broken window fallacy” if I remember my intro economics correctly.

Lastly, I’ve assumed a closed system, but let’s relax that assumption. Here are two things that definitively will create jobs: (1) start manufacturing cell phones in the US; and (2) have 20% of the US consumers buy American when they have a choice. Both of these actions will move actual jobs from overseas to the US and thus will “create [US] jobs” in a very real sense of the word.

One other thing that must be true: I’m not the first person to think of this and suspect there are people who have dedicated more serious time and attention to the question than my casual observations. Thoughts?

Categories: FogOfWar

I am old in Haiti

I am old in Haiti. This fact dawns on me slowly over the six days I am there, because there is so much to take in. Mostly I figure it out because I am constantly amazed by how beautiful and healthy everyone looks. But then again, I keep finding myself thinking, people who are 24 often look healthy and beautiful. It’s when you’re 54 that you begin to show signs of wear and tear. I will reserve judgment until I see older folks.

But then, after a while, I realize how few people I’ve seen that are 54, or even 44, or even 39. Almost nobody, in fact. Every now and then a very old person will cross the street slowly, hobbling with a stick for support. On my 6th day there I tried to figure out exactly how old such people were. Maybe not much older than me, in fact.

The statistics, which I don’t look at until afterwards, back up my observation. A third of the population is below the age of 15, half of the population is below the age of 20, and 70 percent of the population is below the age of 30. Probably the places I went, the cities, skew even younger. It looks like about 25% of the women of childbearing age are pregnant, and all of the women are of childrearing age. The population has tripled in Haiti since 1950 and it isn’t slowing down. If anything it’s bumping up because of the devastating 2010 earthquake – women tend to replace their lost babies by even more babies after such events.

This matters because the Haitian land is overpopulated. In fact it’s worse than that: the land suffers from a severe erosion of its topsoil, due to deforestation over the years. In part – get this – Haiti was deforested to repay the debt to France for letting them be free back in the early 1800’s after the (world’s only successful) slave revolt. But it’s continued since then, and when you chop down all your trees, the rains take away your topsoil, which means your land slowly becomes desert. For the most part that’s what it looks like when you drive through. The result is not very much agriculture, and when you combine that with a fast-growing population, you get an horribly unsustainable situation.

In spite of all these problems, and in part because of them, the Haitians I came across seem incredibly nice to me and to each other. Trucks, people, motorcycles, cars, and 4-by-4’s compete for space in the one-lane roads in Port Au Prince but everyone stops dead when a young child needs to cross the street. It is a society that cherishes safety and looking out for one another.

When the water and soda sellers come to our public bus window to offer us drinks, and someone wants a cake instead, or to buy minutes for their cell phone, there’s a scramble by the nearby vendors to find the cake seller or the roaming Digicelwoman. The sellers at each stop form a collective that look out for each other, because if they didn’t look out for each other they’d all be screwed.

The same is true for with any resource. A UN worker we met explained that microfinance researchers are frustrated by Haitians when they try to estimate the impact of their loans, because they keep finding that a family has borrowed money and given it to another family. But if they didn’t share resources locally, all the families in a given neighborhood would be risking too much. It is better to be known as a generous person so that in a time of scarcity people will be generous to you. Your reputation is your most valuable asset.

When I think about how we live here in New York – where I don’t know most of my neighbors’ names, and nobody can see what happens behind closed doors, and we hoard resources except in our most immediate family – I feel like we’re missing out on something valuable. At the same time, privacy is nice, and I don’t think most Haitians have much of that. Not to mention a healthy middle age.

Categories: musing

What the fucking shit, Barbie?

I’m back from Haiti! It was amazing and awesome, and please stand by for more about that, with cultural observations and possibly a slide show if you’re all well behaved.

Today, thanks to my math camp buddy Lenore Cowen, I am going to share with you an amazing blog post by Pamela Ribon. Her post is called Barbie Fucks It Up Again and it describes a Barbie book entitled Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer

The other book is called "I Can Be an Actress"

The other book is called “I Can Be an Actress”

Just to give you an idea of the plot, Barbie’s sister finds Barbie engaged on a project on her computer, and after asking her about it, Barbie responds:

“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

To which blogger Pamela Ribon comments:
What the fucking shit, Barbie?
Update: Please check out the amazing Amazon reviews of this book (hat tip Chris Wiggins).

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