Shanghai: month 1

You send your lover off to China and you wait for her to call Counting Crows

There’s nothing like stepping out your front door in a foreign city while listening to wistful early aughts music to make your life feel like a montage: an eddy of leaves intimates the arrival of fall; a scooter loaded with three generations beeps by; the vendor with the fish-and-something-else-filled pastries wipes down her cart, all while Mr. Counting Crows’ nostalgic voice propels you down the sidewalk.

And so, in homage to the montage, here are some highlights from our first month in Shanghai:

tl;dr: we’ve been in Shanghai for a month!

Apartment hunting

We met our real estate agent, Tina, in a sunny alley somewhere in the Jing’an District where we had told her we wanted to live. She pulled up on a scooter and after briefly showing us two apartments that didn’t have kitchens and were out of our price range, she said not to worry, that there were plenty more apartments to see, and “Let’s go!” Which, to our delight, meant jogging after her as she assertively scootered in the street and on the sidewalk, steering with one hand and making phone calls with the other.

Jogging and scootering

In the stairway of one apartment lived the most courteous bird who greeted passersby with: “Good evening! Have you eaten?”

A most thoughtful bird

With Tina’s help translating, we signed the lease and paid the deposit on our new apartment (unfortunately with a birdless stairwell). Tina pointed out a bundle of sugarcane on the floor of the landlord’s office. She named the province it comes from and showed us how to eat it. There’s something enchanting and whimsical about eating a stalk of sugarcane with your landlord and realtor after signing a lease.

Medical examination

To turn your Z Visa into a residency permit you have to pass a medical examination. To get to the medical center you walk through a suburb of Shanghai that feels like Holland, and then enter a compound of buildings situated on very beautiful grounds.

The medical examination begins with cryptic shuffling from room-to-room for paperwork (Josh was sent to another building and our friend was sent from that building to the building we had started out in) and then standing in line to pay an undetermined amount, which ranges, we are told, from 0 to 750 RMB. Everyone in front of me was asked to pay 461 RMB (about 65 USD) and when I got up to the window I gave the woman five pink 100 RMB notes, which she promptly handed back to me along with the paperwork I needed to proceed. Meanwhile, in the other building, Josh was asked to pay the 461 RMB.

The examination then includes being issued a very comfortable robe, which felt much more like a spa garment than anything you’d find in a hospital.

Luxury robe

The actual check-up is an impressive feat of efficiently administered medical tests on hordes of mystified foreigners, most with no Chinese, all with varying degrees of English, communicating with medical professionals who have in turn their own varieties of English. The level of communication in lingua franca English is remarkable here, and I feel very fortunate that it happens to be my native language.

All of us robed and bewildered foreigners, passports and paperwork clutched in our hands, were then cycled through the medical tests in a mysterious but organized way. Josh and I, for example, never saw each other once in the maze of hallways and rooms, but we had all the same tests done and finished at the same time.  With very little linguistic communication, we received an EKG, chest X-ray, ultrasound, had our blood drawn and our eyesight tested, and had our height, weight, and blood pressure taken.

Everything felt sanitary enough and all the medical personnel were polite, but if you wanted to you could imagine it all feeling very much like a YA dystopian novel: foreigners in matching robes on a grim rainy day roaming grim clinical hallways, being shuffled from medical test to medical test with no way of knowing what to expect next.

Or, as Josh put it, it felt like there was a chance we had just signed up for the army.

Sites, food & everything else

Each day is filled with details specific to being in a new place. Everything is novel.  Every day Josh and I walk on a new street, see a new site (a small boy sitting on the back of a scooter while holding a cat that is tucked into a backpack and has a cone around its face!), try a new food, mispronounce a new word. To top off the montage, here are a few more photographs from the past month:

Touristing at the Oriental Pearl
Josh looking fly while eating a cucumber
My favorite food
There’s nothing that a scooter can’t carry
Houseplant shopping
The Bund and a barge

The best part of all this is that I’m here in China, experiencing all these adventures, with my specialsomeone, so I don’t even have to wait for him to call.

Race report: Twin Cities Marathon ’18

Happy to be done!

“Well, Mike, it’s a marathon.”

– Pragmatic spectator cheering on participating friend

Race Day

At 7:00am, my very companianable running partner Josh and I headed out the door to jog to the starting line of our second marathon. We had woken up earlier than we needed to, but were well-stretched and, for the most part, not grumpy. It was 48°F with no wind and no rain. Most of our training runs had been in the 70s, so although the conditions were about perfect, my legs felt a little more tight at the outset than I would have liked.

It really is all mental

“Mental fitness plays a big role during competition. If you don’t rule your mind, your mind will rule you.” — Philosopher Kipchoge

As soon as I crossed the starting mat, my mental game nimbly escaped from me. I was surprised at how overwhelmed I felt at the number of participants and spectators and had a hard time settling into a comfortable rhythm.  At the halfway point, my mental game was so off that I started crying—not from muscle cramps or aches, but simply from feeling overwhelmed. My good ol’ running partner had the mental capacity to carry both of us through my blues, as he kept the pace, made jokes, pointed out signs and cute dogs and asked me to tell him the most surprising twists from the first two Harry Potter books (turns out Voldemort is involved in both of them!).

Around mile 15 I was finally able to shake off the grumps and start enjoying the fall foliage and the very enthusiastic spectators lining almost every part of the course (I actually think running a marathon takes less energy than watching one in the style that those supporters did). Somewhere during mile 16 I overheard an exchange that got me through the next 10 miles. A spectator had spotted his friend on the course, who said that things were going pretty well but he was starting to feel it. The spectator responded in the most matter-of-fact way: “Well, Mike, it’s a marathon.”

Oh, right. It’s okay to not feel comfortable. So I began feeling much more at ease with my discomfort and started interacting a little more with the spectators to take my mind off of running. The Chicago marathon was going on at the same time, and we were curious about the results. As we passed one group of spectators I asked no one in particular who had won Chicago and, without missing a beat, they shouted, “Mo!” Although it was a brief interaction, for some race-magic reason, it was very uplifting.

At mile 20, my legs were feeling well enough that I felt confident I wasn’t going to have any muscle cramps (something that I experienced during my first marathon), which buoyed my spirits enough to avoid any pits of despair in the last 10k. When Josh and I saw the finish line, I glanced at my watch and realized we were going to make it across in just under our goal time. I slumped over the final mat, hugging Josh and yelling: “We made it! I didn’t think we were going to!”

What’s next?

Josh and I are training for our first 50k, which we’ll undertake on December 1 outside of Scottsdale, AZ.

Week 5. Lengua de señas mexicana

One of the most striking things I first noticed when reading about Mexican Sign Language (lengua de señas mexicana, or LSM) is the lack of information available about LSM as compared to American Sign Language. Google Scholar produces 3,200,000 results for the search “American Sign Language” and only 396,000 for “Mexican Sign Language.” Of course, those are English-language articles and ASL, although unrelated to English, is used in an English-speaking culture while LSM, unrelated to Spanish, is used in a Spanish-speaking culture. But the result is not much more encouraging if you use the Spanish name for both languages. “Lengua de señas mexicana” gets 17,100 hits and “lengua de señas Americana” gets 20,600. There are more speakers of ASL than LSM, but hundreds of thousands more, not millions more. It is always disappointing to see the grand field of linguistics tilt away from equality (and, surely, this is not the most egregious instance of inequality in linguistics).

All right! Onto LSM. According to Ethnologue there are about 130,000 users of LSM, concentrated mostly in urban areas, with the majority in Mexico City, San Luis Potosí and Guadalajara. LSM is part of the large French Sign Language (LSF) family, which also includes ASL, but is not mutually intelligible with ASL or LSF. Although many LSM users are bilingual in LSM and Spanish, LSM is not Spanish for the hands. Even though many Deaf Mexicans refer to LSM as “seña español,” it has entirely different verb inflections, syntax, and overall structure than Spanish.

Whereas Spanish has, it may seem to an English speaker learning Spanish, an overabundance of “to be,” LSM rarely uses the copula verb. Spanish also is very concerned with agreement between everything: articles, nouns, adjectives, verbs. LSM on the other hand (ha!) does not normally inflect verbs for tense or mood.

In 2005 LSM was officially declared a national language of Mexico. Before then, Deaf students were taught using the oral method, meaning that they were expected to learn in Spanish, by reading lips, learning to read and write Spanish, and, sometimes, learning to speak Spanish as well. While there are now more schools that use LSM, Deaf Mexicans are often marginalized and have fewer social, job, and education opportunities than hearing Mexicans.

Wikipedia Mexican Sign Language


The identitiy of Mexican sign as a language

First written grammatical description of LSM Mexican Sign Language Grammar



Week 4. God, Ernõ and the Magic Cube

Between 1972 and 1976, four patents around the world were filed for mechanical puzzles that featured cubes with 2x2x2 or 3x3x3 dimensions. These puzzles were assembled in a variety of ways, including some with simple magnets and some with complex concealed pivot mechanisms, but they were all a variation on the interlocking puzzle that dates to the 3rd century BC. The most famous of these, the Rubik’s Cube — named after patent-filer number 3, Ernõ Rubik — is the best selling toy of all time, in part for its ingenuity, in part for its simplicity, and in part because it can appease weekend dabblers and competitive enthusiasts alike.

The genius of the cube is its apparent plainness — rotate the various layers to align the multicolored cubes with their like-colored mates — and its practical complexity. Not only is it incredibly hard (if not impossible for those like me) to solve without guidance, but there are in fact 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 ways to scramble the cube — which isn’t quite up there with the possible positions on a chess board (~10^50), but it’s nonetheless 43 quintillion, a word we don’t often hear. Which is to say that there are trillions upon trillions of ways the cube might look when you begin to solve it.

The funny thing about math, though, is that even the most absurdly impossible feat is merely a challenge for the right human brain.

Not long after Ernõ Rubik’s “Magic Cube” found its way from behind the Iron Curtain (Rubik is Hungarian and the cube’s first name was “Buvos Kocka”) via Tom Kremer and the Ideal Toy Company in 1980, people began figuring out general solutions. These early solutions often required less than 100 moves and in 1982 David Singmaster and Alexander Frey hypothesized that every possible permutation could be solved by a number of moves in the “low twenties.” In 2007, a pair of computer scientists refined that number to a hard and fast 26. In 2008, Tomas Rokicki lowered it to 22. And in 2010, Rokicki and a few others working with Google lowered it for the last time to a nice and round 20 moves. This number — 20 — is the God’s Number for the Rubik’s Cube.

God’s Number, is hard to achieve for most dabblers, but for the competitive solvers, it’s not far from the norm. The world record for fewest moves to solve, 19, is shared by three people (contestants are given an hour to study the cube and then write down their solutions). The record for the average number solves in a competition is 24.00.

The list of astounding Rubik’s related records goes on — the fastest blindfold solve is 17.87 seconds, the most cubes solved while blindfolded is 41 out of 41, fastest solve is 4.59 seconds — but there’s something neat in our ability to come so close to God — or at least to a theoretical perception of God. God’s Number comes from the idea that God, if given a cube, could always solve it in 20 moves. That we can come so close — 19 moves on three separate occasions — but not quite achieve the perfection at the heart of the number (20 moves, each and every time) says something marvelous about our capacity: that we can identify perfection and nip at its heels. And it says something about both what we can build — the cube; the computer that solved it; the mere possibility, for it would not exist without us and our habitual tinkering — and what we can do with these contrived constraints and ingenious inventions. Buried even deeper is an appraisal of our own self-worth, that God would busy herself with a toy a tinkerer built to better understand three-dimensional mathematics.

All of that, of course, is only true if you’re willing to take the arbitrary moniker a mathematician bestowed to a pretty number seriously. If you don’t, the cube is just the cube: a test of acumen, problem solving and patience.


Week 4. GMOs: Biting off more than I can chew

Three-letter acronyms tend to be very weighty. What dark and sinister meanings lurk behind FBI, CIA, NSA, USA? While the term GMO doesn’t bear the weight of centuries of questionable policies, it is a very contentious little bundle of letters. People often feel strongly about genetically modified organisms, whether they are for or against them. I haven’t ever quite understood what it means, though, for a product (normally I think of produce) to be genetically modified or why products are modified.

There are sundry uses for genetically modified organisms. These include biological and medical research, experimental medicine, and agriculture. Humans have modified plants and animals for centuries and centuries through the process of selective breeding. The first genetically modified organism, however, wasn’t until 1973 when scientists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed bacteria that were resistant to an antibiotic by using a gene from a different bacterium resistant to the same antibiotic. Breakthroughs in the field continued from then on. In 1974 Rudolf Jaenisch inserted a DNA virus into an early-stage mouse embryo and the inserted gene was later found in every cell in the mouse. In 1983, a tobacco plant resistant to antibiotics was engineered and in 1990 genetically engineered cotton was successfully field-tested. In 1995, Monsanto (dun dun dun) introduced a type of soybean known as “Round-Up-Ready,” which was herbicide immune. Five years later, scientists found that nutrients and vitamins could be introduced to enrich foods.

In the United States more than sixty varieties of genetically modified crops that are approved for food and feed supplies, including: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (both field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets, with apples being the most recent addition. Worldwide more than 18 million farmers use GM seeds. A GM plant’s genetic material is altered for a variety of reasons. Many crops are modified to be tolerant to herbicides and droughts and to be insect resistant as well as to be fortified with certain vitamins. For these reasons (and others) people believe that GM crops should be permissible and easily obtainable.

There are concerns that produce that is modified to be immune to diseases contain antibiotic markers that, when consumed by humans, can make antibiotic medicine less effective. Other concerns about GM foods are unknown issues related chemicals, allergies, and the formation of super weeds. There is also the problem of ownership and patents, which can restrict research rights, lead to a consolidation of the seed industry, and, depending on the kind of seed, force farmers to buy new seed every year rather than saving seed from previous years.

Golden rice is a clear example of a GM crop enmeshed in controversy. Golden rice differs “from its parental strain by the addition of three beta-carotene biosynthesis genes”—meaning that it is fortified with vitamin A to be grown in areas with shortages of that vitamin. It is clear that vitamin A deficiency is a real problem: it is estimated that 670,000 children under the age of five die each year due to the deficiency. And a 2012 study showed that the rice provided 68 children in China with more vitamin A than spinach and was as effective as vitamin A capsules.

However, anti-GMO activists worry that focusing on a narrow problem (like vitamin A) will lead to a loss of biodiversity in already impoverished areas and will hurt perhaps already struggling agriculture. In 2008, WHO malnutrition expert Francesco Branca said, “Giving out supplements, fortifying existing foods with vitamin A, and teaching people to grow carrots or certain leafy vegetables are, for now, more promising ways to fight the problem.” The rice, however, has great amounts of backing. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in developing Golden Rice and in June 2016, 107 Nobel laureates “signed a letter urging Greenpeace to abandon their campaigns against GMOs and against golden rice in particular.”

(Further research: There’s just so much more to know. I would like to know how exactly the genetic modifications occur and the difference between genetically engineered and genetically modified, etc.)


Wikipedia: GMOs

Golden Rice

Gates’ Foundation Golden Rice

GMO Answers

Tough Lessons From Golden Rice

History of GMOs

Organic Consumers

Washington Post: Are patents the problem?

Week 3. Counting your notes before they hatch

“I can keep perfect time. Some call me the Human Metronome. You notice how I’m always on time? I’m never late for things.”                                                                        — George Michael Bluth

Time signatures are something that I know how to use without really knowing how I’m using them, why I’m using them, or what they really mean. As I’m learning, their purpose is to indicate to a musician how to count each beat so that the music is played as it was written to be played and so that when multiple musicians play together they are on the same page, so to speak.

Time signatures are written like a fraction. The top number tells the musician how many beats to count in a measure. This number usually is between 2 and 12, but could be any number, really. The bottom number corresponds to what kind of note will be counted. A 2 in this spot indicates half notes will be counted, a 4 indicates quarter notes, an 8 indicates eighth notes, and so on. Theoretically any number can go in the denominator, but the most common are 4, 8, and 16.

To illustrate: In a 4/4 time signature all notes and rests must equal four quarter notes in each measure. The player knows there are four because the top number is four, and knows that they are quarter notes because the bottom number is four. This does not mean that each bar will contain solely four quarter notes (if that were the case music would be much easier to play and much less exciting to listen to). It means that any eighth notes or sixteenth notes or rests or half notes must all combine together to equal four quarter notes in each measure and that each beat is a quarter note in length.

Below is a short example of a ¾ time signature. Each beat in the song is the length of a quarter note and there are three beats in a measure. It is from Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” (or, as they say in German, “Die lustige Witwe”).



Time signatures

Common music time signatures

Music theory for young students 

Week 3. Long distances, subjective ingredients and a brief history of time

Tennessee Williams once wrote that “Time is the longest distance between two places,” meaning, I think, that time — because it is finite — is the only real measurement that matters between two points. Humans have yet to find a distance or a depth that is unreachable — at least in the course of a life (which might be thought of as the time allotted us).

But what, exactly, is time? That Facebook just invented a new unit of time (the flick) should say all that needs to be said about time’s human construct. Because for all the as astronomical preciseness, time is still just an imprecise calculation designed to position us at a point in the universe, in history, and in our own existence.

Time, as we understand it, developed over several thousand years, starting around 3,000 BCE, when evidence first appears that the Chinese had measured a 366-day year based on the movements of the sun. A thousand years later they had a 12-month calendar — which included an occasional 13th month. Two thousand years after that and they had recognized what we know today as precession and came to understand that every 300 years, the 12-month calendar would no longer match with the seasons.

In the west, precession was recognized and accounted for in the name of religion. After Constantine established the Easter holiday on the spring equinox, the date of the holiday continued to change (it is, after all, an astronomical event), so in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII implemented the Georgian calendar. The calendar, the one most of us use today, keeps the spring equinox around March 20-21 through the use of the leap year.

As for the more precise measures of time, those which can’t simply be observed by us layfolk through the rising and setting of the sun, their origin is not entirely known. Theories posit that the 24-hour day was devised to match the 12-constellation zodiac cycle. Others speculate that 12 fit nicely into 60 — which fit nicely into the 360-day year.

For being the thing upon which our lives mostly depend — from how long we work each week to how long we sleep each night to how long we live — time is awfully imprecise. Of course, we’ve modified our calendars and walk around with cellular-network-enabled watches in our pocket. But we still live and die by a measure based on our position in the universe, by our relative relation to the sun and the stars. When we are is based on where we are — though in our daily lives that seems to have mostly reversed.

Huw Price, a Cambridge University professor of philosophy, says that the absolute direction of time — the sense that we are constantly hurtling toward the future — exists only in our minds, the result of a “subjective ingredient,” a “temporal perspective” that we project onto the environment around us. Similarly, the passage of time and the existence of moments, he says, are mental constructs. Rather, based on Einstein’s theory of relativity, the block universe that we live in is tenseless: the past, present and future are all equally real.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Max Tegmark describes this block universe theory of time like a DVD. You watch the movie on the DVD and the movie itself plays and there is a drama and things are happening and changing, but nothing about the DVD changes. Thought of through this lens, the only measure of change — as a product of the passage of time — is memory. (Memory and its relationship with time might be worthy of its own Breaking Eggs entry.)

On the other hand, theoretical cosmologist Andreas Albrecht makes the argument that time exists in relativity. “When you try to discuss time in the context of the universe, you need the simple idea that you isolate part of the universe and call it your clock, and time evolution is only about the relationship between some parts of the universe and that thing you called your clock,” he says.

All of which leads me to believe that change may be the best way to consider time. If time itself is merely a construct, it is at least the reflection of change, whether its the change in sunlight as the day progresses, or the flow of traffic or the accumulation of wrinkles and the loss of hair — time is merely the brain’s way of making sense of change, giving order to the chaos through some linear construct.

Some, of course, have continued to argue for the existence of time as an instrumental piece of our universe.  But it seems farfetched. Still, as I sit here mulling it over, it’s hard to imagine a world without time, or a facet of existence that is not built upon time.

To bring back Tennessee Williams, the full passage is, “I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further — for time is the longest distance between two places.” Time, real or not, is imperative to our personhood, to our development and growth, to our progress and our stability — time and our memory of change, is how we measure our maturity and, ultimately, at any given moment, how we know who we are.

To get a much better and more clear picture of time and complex arguments behind its existence, read Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s great “The illusion of time: What’s real?” which is where I gathered a great deal for this piece. 


Week 2. The Root of the Matter (or, The Tooth about Root Canals)

Sometimes it feels like there is a tiny timpani playing inside your molar. Its constant beat is almost calming and it radiates a sort of warmth. The dental assistant says Oops, we have to do one more X-ray, open wide, and the dentist says, Looks like we’ll have to do a root canal, which isn’t a very big deal, don’t worry. Sorry, denticle drummer, we’re going to have to let you go.

A simple anatomy of a tooth

Commonly called a root canal, endodontic therapy is a type of treatment for the damaged insides of a tooth. Its name comes from the Greek, with the roots endo meaning “inside” and odont meaning “tooth.” The expedition inside the tooth is to remove infected pulp, which is in an area called the pulp chamber. Tooth pulp is vivacious. It is composed of living tissue, blood vessels, and cells with the name of a superhero: odontoblasts. The pulp’s primary function is to form dentin, which is the layer above the pulp chamber and helps protect the tooth. It is also nutritive (it keeps the surrounding mineralized tissue happy with nutrients and moisture) as well as sensory.

When the pulp becomes inflamed or infected it becomes sensitive (very—your tongue trains the coffee away from the tooth and you throw the rest of the Junior Mints in the trash) and it must be removed from its chamber. To do this, the well-paid endodontist creates an opening called an access cavity in the tooth’s crown and uses a root canal file to clean out nerve tissue, bacteria, toxins, and other debris. After the putrid pulp is removed from the chamber and root canals, a rubber compound called gutta-percha is inserted to seal the tooth.

Gutta-percha comes from a tree of the same name (Latin palaquium gutta). The natural latex produced from the sap of these trees has been used for sundry industrial and domestic purposes, most notably as insulation for underwater telegraph cables. It is a very flexible material, happy under the ocean or inside a tooth’s pulp chamber. Once the gutta-percha is placed to keep the tooth from being reinfected with bacteria, the access cavity is then filled with either a temporary or permanent crown (depending on how robust the patient’s insurance plan is) and the process is complete.

At the end, you’re out some dental pulp and about $1,000 but you’re the proud owner of a wad of gutta-percha and you can drink coffee without flinching.

A root canal illustrated

American Association of Endodontists

Wikipedia: Pulp (tooth)

Step by Step Root Canal

The Root Canal Procedure

Week 2. Honduras, palm oil and the repercussions of modernization

Nearly 25 years ago, the World Bank invested in a small jungle valley in Honduras. The land program the World Bank used, which lends money to impoverished countries around the globe, was ostensibly designed to bring much-needed wealth to rural communities through modernization. In this case, it involved loaning some $30 million to palm oil giant Dinant to help them buy up a few thousand acres of land in Bajo Aguán.

The plan was never popular in Bajo Aguán, but then-President José Manuel Zelaya — a leftist who raised the minimum wage by 80% and introduced generous subsidies for farmers — was a bastion against the complete exploitation of the locals, which kept a lid on the tensions. After he was ousted, though, in a 2009 military coup, conditions in Bajo Aguán rapidly deteriorated.

A 2015 investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that since 2010 at least 133 killings were linked to land disputes in the area. Primarily the violence has been two-sided, with both locals and Dinant (and other corporate landholders) accused of beatings, torture and murder.

Elsewhere in the country, 109 environmental activists have been murdered since 2010 for standing up against dams, mining operations and agricultural projects, according to a report from Global Witness.  The most notable of which is Berta Cáceres who was shot to death in 2016. Cáceres, an internationally renown environmentalist who had most notably succeeded in halting the construction of the Agua Zarca dam in Rio Blanco, was killed in a safe house after telling her friends and daughter to prepare for a world without her.

Honduras, of course, is just one example of the repercussions of modernization and the pressures put upon developing nations by the Global North. In many ways, it is a forgotten poster child: The rate of murders in the country was 42.8 per 100,000 last year (down from 85.5 per 100,000 in 2011); it is one of the two poorest countries in the Americas, despite being resource-rich; and it bore the brunt of American intervention — or in this case, lack thereof.

In the wake of the 2009 military coup that toppled Zelaya, the United States (and, many like to note, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) was one of the only countries in the international community that refrained from calling the act a “coup.” The argument that Clinton and co. made was that to label the military intervention — which exiled Zelaya to Costa Rica and threw the country into chaos — a coup would mean that the U.S. would be required to cancel all aid to the country. But here we are, years after the democratically elected president was ousted, and Honduras has remained unstable.

I don’t mean to pick on Honduras, or to write flippantly about the strife that many millions of people are enduring. What I mean to do is work through my own knowledge about repercussions and about the consequences of modernization, and to get a sense for the struggles that activists around the globe face in the name of their righteous cause.

Berta Cáceres, for instance, was a dogged environmentalist who would have fit nicely into the American narrative of going green. But her most notable accomplishment was halting the construction of a hydroelectric dam — exactly the sort of project that American activists would be pushing for to undercut reliance on pollutants like coal and gas.

In Bajo Aguán things are more clear-cut, but still vague. Dinant is the sort of easily recognizable corporate landowner that is taking advantage of vulnerable communities, but they are operating with money from the World Bank doled out in the name of modernization, purportedly to help farmers and peasants adapt to a global world by injecting jobs and cash into communities.

And while these two brief stories don’t negate the importance of social, cultural and environmental progress and modernization, it’s easy to forget the reverberations; that nothing happens in a vacuum, and — even more — that everything is invariably inmeshed in a complex web of connections and crescendos: America support a military coup, drives demand for palm oil, lowers the cost of gas and inflates the value of renewable energy, and, in the process, forgets that people — often times people halfway across the world and living entirely foreign lives — make it all possible.



Week 1. From Backrub to Google: Wrestling with what’s known (and what’s not)

In 1996 a pair of friends wrote a program in their dorm room that crawled, cataloged and generally organized what was, at that time, the modest expanse of the internet. Backrub, as it was called then, got a small investment, moved into a garage and became Google.

Today, Google — and its parent company Alphabet — is, in many ways, the backbone of the internet, the trunk from which the webbed branches of the world wide web grow and one of the largest hubs of information that has ever existed. Despite being a software so ingrained into daily life that is has become functionally invisible, the most basic things that Google does (and those which allow it to generate more revenue than many countries) remain a mystery.

At its most simple, Google is a search engine that functions by performing three basic tasks: crawling the internet, indexing content, and, upon command, retrieving what’s been indexed. In action, Google’s software essentially visits every webpage that’s ever been linked to (crawling), makes a copy of the page (indexing) and then promptly repeats, following every link on that page, making a copy of those pages and following every new link ad infinitum. This indexing process generates massive amounts of data (dated estimations guess that Google stores some 15 exabytes — 15 million terabytes or 30 million personal computers worth — at any given time). This inundation of data makes Google’s ability to retrieve search results in a fraction of a second all the more impressive. It’s also why the final function of a search engine is arguably the most important: the retrieval algorithm.

Google’s algorithm is both beautiful and terrifying. Parsed down to generalities, when you enter a search query, Google uses an algorithm known as PageRank that helps to sort search results by two factors: relevance and ranking. But nothing is so simple as it sounds, especially not online. Google’s way of measuring relevance and rank is shockingly personal and it’s likely that no one knows us as well as Google does.

Odds are, if you are like me, when you are logged onto your private computer, you’re logged into Gmail, which means you’re logged into Google, which means that every time you search something, Google uses an algorithm developed specially for you, based on billions of factors — your search history, your browser history, your shopping habits, where you are, where you have been, what devices you are using, your demographic, your family’s demographic and dozens or hundreds or thousands of other factors that we (the unprivy internet novices) don’t even understand are important, but that Google has thought to track. And these factors and the search results they generate create a sort of personalized internet. An internet not so cloistered as the “social media bubble” that troubled so many after 2016’s elections, but one that nonetheless holds the power to skew our perception of knowledge and information.

Which brings me to a common personal refrain: Should I be alarmed? I love how seamlessly Google does everything I ask of it, and the collection of data is what makes their service work: They know everything I could ever need to know before I even ask. It’s delightful and unsettling all at once. (The My Activity page that brazenly packages everything you do on the internet as a sort of personal convenience is a small example of just how much power Google knows that it holds.)

And Google, of course, is just one of many. Our devices and desire for constant connectivity have bulldozed a path for dozens of innocuous-seeming services to make hundreds of billions of dollars off of us — the information that makes us individuals, all of it bought and sold thousands of times over so that when we open a page we see an add and suddenly desire a new pair of boots, even though we just bought the exact pair we thought we wanted.

Admittedly, Google might have been a lot to bite off for the first of what will hopefully be many blog posts throughout the year. But I guess I’m hoping to wrestle with things — with my apathy and my doomsayer inclinations, and, more broadly, to understand and engage with the many great unknowns of the world. And what is more unknown than everything about me that has been crawled, indexed, broken down to ones and zeroes and stored on some server in a far away state to sell me a new pair of boots?