Thursday, November 5, 2009

Afghanistan: From Fighter Jets to Poppy Seeds

B-1 Lancer bomber over Afghanistan
Photo: Master Sergeant Andrew Dunaway / USAF

Oops, by goes another month... where did October go? And where's the October post? It'll happen, just in November :)

I got something special today, an article by a fellow writer who is a great thinker, researcher and analyst. His article uncovers a truth that's not that hidden, namely why the world is so interested in Afghanistan. Though the humanitarian aspect sounds nice and gives that warm fuzzy feeling ("free the people of Afghanistan!"), nothing could be further from the minds of the international forces currently trying to restore "order" in Afghanistan.

Read about the real incentives that have made Afghanistan the center of attention for decades now. Here's "Black Gold Still Rules in Pipelineistan."

Oh, and what the heck, while we're on the subject of depressing truths, here's an article about the Opium Trail.

That still reminds me of something positive though - poppy seeds! Totally legal and absolutely YUM in pastry...
Photo: Bartosz Senderek

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mutants of the Moscow Metro

Looks like the Lexington Ave stop of the E/F line in New York, doesn't it?

Pardon the alliteration but I couldn't help myself. And there really have been mutant bugs in the Moscow subway. At least according to Alex Andreev, a digital artist from Russia, who makes us discover Moscow's underground:

"Birds are driving subway trains, a giant chrysalis hangs inside a train compartment and mutant cockroaches seem to breathe their last in disgust at a cleaner Moscow underground. And the people? Like a hoard of sheep, they board the trains, noose around their necks or wait for giant pincers to grab one of them out of their midst. What’s going on in the Moscow metro? Are we facing an urban nightmare or did someone just look too deep into his vodka glass?"

Here's the full story and interview with Alex Andreev.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

India...meri jaan...sometimes

Image via kokopellitattoo

The topic of this post is India because you can say about it what you want, it is a country that will inspire you.

Seeing it from up close, I have to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with it. And here we're jumping right into what India is all about: extremes. Extremes in temperature, extremes in food, extremes in people and yes, extremes in emotions.

Like New York, India extricates a definite reaction from people. It's hard to imagine anyone saying "oh yeah, India's okay" or "New York is an okay city." You'll get "India is mad" or "I loved the energy" or "I heart New York" or "I hate New York" but nothing vague.

Here's a list of some articles of mine about India that explain everyday rituals and objects. And "meri jaan" is something you would call your loved one. If you're one for Hindi songs, you'll hear it all the time;)

Survival Guide to Indian Weddings - a labor of love that's not getting the attention it deserves
What to Wear at Indian Weddings - the logical next question
Top Indian Wedding Songs - love them or hate them but I dare you to sit still
How to Make Indian Chai - can't get more basic than that
The Indian Bindi - what it means and where it comes from
The South Indian Thaipusam Festival - yup, the one with hooks in the back and other piercings

* I know, the picture is of a Maori warrior, nothing to do with India; I just liked the expression. *

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Leaves that are... urban maps!

Image: Jeff Kubina

I find that the best inspiration still comes from nature. Okay, we're all part of nature but design, architecture and other man-made things can be inspiring as well. But nature tops it all - take leaves for example. Simple leaves from trees, shrubs, bushes, plants, anything.

Have you ever noticed the intricate patterns of veins on them? No? Well, then go and pluck the nearest leaf you can find and take a look. They are truly amazing! Some more symmetrical than others but all quite cool. Of course their purpose is the transportation of nutrients and water to all areas of the leaf but that's not all...

Some people have taken an almost microscopic look at leaves, photographed their favorite ones and posted the pictures online. Just for me to collect them and find a pattern, a scheme that unites them all - they are maps for insects! Yes, maps, topographical charts and indicators of urban and suburban density. You don't believe me? Then see for yourself.

Image: Fred Jacobs

Tell me that the image above does not show the urban density of Toronto? Well, here's the official map:
Image via ccablog

Here's the full article with lots more pictures.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Chernobyl 1986-2009, a Retrospective

Lenin Square today; image: Timm Suess

An interesting topic I worked on this week was a retrospective about Chernobyl.

Initially, I was hesitant to take on the assignment because well, it's not one of the most cheerful topics one can think of. But I do have a personal connection with it and remember the day of the worst nuclear disaster in history very well: I was in 6th grade, talking with my two best friends before school and one of them said: "Did you hear the news? A nuclear reactor exploded in Chernobyl." Of course, when you're 12 years old, you can't really imagine what that means. And, let's face it, many smarter and experienced professionals in high places couldn't fathom the impact of the disaster either and their delay caused suffering for so many people.

I remember it was an unusually muggy day in April; it felt as if the radiation had already made its way over and was heating up the atmosphere. It definitely affected my circulation so that on the way from one classroom to the next, I fainted. Just like that, while going up a flight of stairs. The next thing I remember was being carried up the stairs by the janitor and all my classmates staring at me. Not the best way for a teenage girl to draw attention to herself...

Girls in Pripyat during happier times; image: Ari Shohat

But that way, the Chernobyl tragedy and the mood of the day will be forever etched into my memory. During the research for the article, I came across a photographer's website who had recently been on a two-day trip to Chernobyl . I didn't know that this was even possible but since 2002, the "zone of alienation" (the 30km-radius around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant) is open to visitors.

What about radiation? Good question. Apparently, most of it came down during the first year after the disaster. Now, there are areas of different radiation levels and as long as one stays away from the critical ones, it's fine. But a Geiger counter has to be one's constant companion in "the zone."

Still, I had more questions and luckily Timm Suess, the photographer, agreed to talk to me about his trip and his work. Check out the photographs on his website - they are amazing! He has also posted a journal about the trip that is very down-to-earth and informative.
Abandoned amusement park, set to open on 1st May 1986;
image: Timm Suess

The other lucky development during the research phase was that I found good resources with a decent amount of useful pictures of Chernobyl "before" - which is not so easy to find. Especially useful was old propaganda material and quotes from officials who had stated that the "chances of a nuclear fallout were 1 in 10,000" and that nuclear energy and the Chernobyl plant were absolutely safe. Yeah, right.

Then, there was the story of the city of Pripyat - the place that housed the nuclear plant - with a population of 50,000. All hopeful people, many young couples, thankful to have jobs and a good standard of living. In short - people were happy, didn't know anything about the dangers of radiation and just ran into their fate with wide open eyes.

The most shocking bit of news for me is still the fact that because of the officials' ignorance and inability to accept the disaster, the people of Pripyat went about their business as usual for three days after the disaster! Nobody evacuated them immediately, which could have saved thousands of lives. No, children played in the radioactive sand, mothers fed their families with radioactive food and fathers went to work next to a reactor that had just melted down. When people finally realized that something was awefully wrong, most of them got drunk, trying to "disinfect" their bodies with vodka.

Here is the full story with more pictures.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Happy World Population Day!

Image: Steve Jurvetson

Yes, I know, many people see the world population of 6.7 billion as a reason for alarm and though I do agree that, given our current resources, the population should be controlled, I disagree with painting too bleak a picture.

After all the more people there are, the better the chances that we'll put our minds together and come up with simple and effective solutions to the world's problems. I see each person as an opportunity, not a problem.

And I've taken a look at crowds and what motivates us to crowd and found (apart from seasonal sales): entertainment, sports, opportunity, religious beliefs and common goals and destinations.

There's more, of course. What do you think? What's your motivation for rubbing shoulders with strangers, often for hours?

Here's more on what I found on crowds, some amazing images from then and now. The image above is of the torch relay in Shenzen, China, at the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The focus of the 20th World Population Day is on girls' and women's education and health. "Fight poverty - educate girls!"

Friday, July 10, 2009

10 Potentially Deadly Yet Strangly Beautiful Mega Metros

Image of Mexico City via Fairfield University

Here's an article I worked on for quite some time and that taught me a lot, for example about the types of issues big cities have to deal with like

  • air pollution
  • chemicals
  • crime
  • industry
  • murder
  • natural disasters
  • nuclear waste
  • sanitation
  • water pollution

Not to mention transportation. It's fascinating and scary at the same time to see how megacities operate. In fact, if there's a city with 20 million people, it will have a whole new set of problems than a smaller one that might be running smoothly. It's like having children - the more you have, the more problems you have but also the more joy. Everything just multiplies.

So after studying the Blacksmith Institute's "Dirty Thirty" and similar resources, I came up with my list of, well, not the "Dirty Dozen" but a Top Ten of Deadliest Metros (in alpha order) and one main environmental issue:

  1. Beijing, China - air pollution coupled with dust storms
  2. Buenos Aires, Argentina - flood-prone due to geographic location
  3. Cairo, Egypt - worst air pollution
  4. Caracas, Venezuela - world's murder capital
  5. Dhaka, Bangladesh - worst water pollution
  6. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - huge sanitation problem
  7. Johannesburg, South Africa - crime capital
  8. Mexico City, Mexico - industries fuel air pollution
  9. Moscow, Russia - nuclear waste problem
  10. New Delhi, India - toxins and chemicals in water

As is the case with all lists, it will change as new data becomes available. And, of course, there were many other contenders like Manila, Mumbai and even London and Athens. So rather than point fingers at these ten, the article wants to highlight one problem each of the megacities is battling with. And underline their strange beauty.

Here's the full article including many sources.