Thursday, March 29, 2012

Safe Water

by Conroy

Gathering unsafe water in India
I’m fond of saying that the modern world started when indoor plumbing, fresh water and modern sanitation, became widely available. Not only did these innovations make conditions far more sanitary but it also promoted better hygiene [1]. For the United States, this happened in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [2], and by the decade after World War II most urban and rural areas of westernized nations had modern plumbing; clean water was delivered to the house and dirty water carried away.

This development had a profound effect on public health. Cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever were among the common epidemics suffered in London, New York, and other major western cities before what I’ll term the safe water infrastructure was in place. Now those diseases are largely unknown in the west. I’m guessing that for most readers of this blog, safe water is taken largely for granted, as it was by our parents and even our grandparents. In fact, a resident of New York or London probably thinks that the word cholera is quaint and foreign, when as little as 100 years ago it would have caused mortal dread.

Unsafe Water
This isn’t the case everywhere though. Cholera still afflicts millions of people worldwide each year, and a major outbreak occurred in Haiti after the massive, crippling 2010 earthquake. This is because even now, in 2012, billions of people across the globe still lack access to clean drinking water and modern sanitation. Here are a few eye-opening statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO):
  • 900 million people lack access to drinking-water from improved water sources (13% of the world population);
  • 2.6 billion people lack access to improved sanitation facilities (37% of the world population);
  • 2.2 million children die worldwide each year from unsafe water.
  • Unsafe water is a major risk factor for diarrheal disease, which is the second leading contributor to the global disease burden.

Here are a couple of maps, taken directly from the U.N.’s 2010 Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) report that illustrate the current safe water crisis (click on them to enlarge):

The top map shows the state of improved sanitation. The pink colored countries are where less than 50% of the population has access to improved sanitation; the light green colored countries are where less than 75% of the population has access to improved sanitation. The first category includes the great majority of sub-Saharan Africa as well as south Asia. The second category includes China, the world’s most populous nation. Less than 90% of the populations of Brazil, Russia, Argentina, and Mexico have access to improved sanitation.

The bottom map shows the state of improved drinking water. The pink colored countries are where less than 50% of the population has access to improved drinking-water; the light blue colored countries are where less than 75% have access; and the medium blue colored countries are where less than 90% have access. The first and second categories include the great majority of sub-Saharan Africa. The third category includes India and China, the world’s two most populous nations. Not surprisingly, all of these nations, including India and China, fare very poorly in the U.N.’s Human Development Index, which attempts to quantify overall quality of life by country [3]. This is hardly surprising; it’s difficult to imagine human development being high where safe water is a luxury.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Prometheus and the Alien Saga

by Conroy

This past weekend there was quite a bit of buzz emanating from the WonderCon [1] convention in Anaheim as revered director Ridley Scott revealed more details about his upcoming movie Prometheus. There have been rumors for years that Scott was working on a “prequel” to his landmark 1979 movie Alien, a much-loved, critically-hailed, and very influential film. But Scott and his creative partners have been rather coy about their plans to revisit the Alien “universe”, and so fans were left to wonder whether Prometheus would be a true prequel or only tangentially related to the original. The jury, even after WonderCon, is still out. Scott indicated that Prometheus is definitely related to Alien (“in the same universe”) but it asks different questions and focuses on new themes. At the same time he debuted the film’s trailer [2], which allowed audiences their first glimpse at the actual film. I’ll leave it to others to dissect what can be learned from the two-minute trailer, but suffice it to say it does appear to be both related to and different from the original movie.

I’m a huge fan of both Alien and its first sequel Aliens (more on this below), so Prometheus fills me both with excitement and hesitation. On the one hand, we have an accomplished director revisiting a universe he shaped with the promise of answering questions that have been asked by fans for the past 33 years, along with adding to the mythology of a celebrated movie franchise. This has been done successfully, consider how Francis Ford Coppola expertly fleshed-out the rise of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. On the other hand, we may get a movie that tacks on a backstory that detracts from the original. Just look at the execrable Star Wars prequels to see how wrong revisiting earlier movies can go.

Still, Prometheus can’t help but kindle anticipation because even a generation later, the first two Alien movies remain deeply compelling. Not only have they been influential, but they stand out for their intelligence and fundamentally as excellent examples of filmmaking craft. They’re great movies.

The Alien Saga
I’ll assume that if you’ve read this far you’re at least somewhat familiar with the Alien movie franchise. But here’s an overview. As noted, Alien was released in 1979, the sequel Aliens, directed by James Cameron, was released in 1986. Alien 3 [3] came out in 1992, and was followed by Alien Resurrection in 1997. There are also two crossover movies, Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). These last two don’t exist in the same movie universe as the first four. [4]

Alien is set sometime in the future in deep space. The crew of the commercial spacecraft Nostromo is awakened prematurely from suspended animation during their return voyage to Earth to investigate a signal from a nearby moon. There they find a derelict spacecraft and a cargo hold full of live pods, or eggs. One crew member is attacked and incapacitated by an alien parasite. Later, back on their return voyage and after the parasite dies, the crew member, Kane, appears to have recovered. However, he is soon violently killed as an organism bursts from his chest. The creature escapes, grows rapidly, and kills other members of the crew. Finally, as the survivors become more desperate it is revealed that Ash, the science officer, is in fact an android and has been ordered to ensure the survival of the alien for the profit of “the company” (the ship’s owners), Ripley (Weaver) leads the remaining crew in abandoning the ship. However she’s the only one who makes it off the ship alive, and is forced to confront the alien a final time as it has taken surreptitious refuge in the escape shuttle.

This is a horror movie with sci-fi trappings; a monster movie on a spaceship. But it’s executed masterfully: from its measured pacing; setting in space on a large ship full of dark corridors and cavernous mechanical spaces, a murky planet, and a mysterious alien craft; the juxtaposition of light and shadow; a great cast [5] and the let’s-just-get-the-job-done-so-we-can-go-home attitude of their characters; and its hostile and half-seen alien whose lifecycle is truly terrifying. It is without doubt one of the best horror movies ever made.

Aliens is set 57 years after the first movie. By fortune Ripley is rescued after having having passed the decades in suspended animation. She learns that LV-426, the moon from the first film, is now in the process of being terra-formed. Not long after her awakening, contact with the terra-forming colony is lost and a rescue mission, led by colonial marines and including Ripley is dispatched. Once on the moon they find the colony abandoned. The marines are routed by a horde of aliens. Eventually Ripley, again left nearly alone, confronts an alien “queen”. This is an action movie with sci-fi and horror trappings. The sequel uses the first movies visual style and measured pacing. The cast is again superb [6] (Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Best Actress for her role). The change from one hidden alien to many quick-moving, visceral aliens is a great contrast to the first movie, as is altering the basic structure from horror to action. Indeed, Aliens is one of the best action movies ever made.

Here are some details that illustrate why these movies are so good:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Bus Good, Train Bad"

by Conroy

Rendering of a "future" high-speed rail train in California
Sometimes exciting ideas are bad. Take the title quote, which I read in a recent Bloomberg article by Edward Glaeser the accomplished Harvard economist [1]. These four words, according to Glaeser, sum up the accepted wisdom gleaned from 40 years of transportation economics at Harvard. And they are directly at odds with one of the long-held – and long out-of-reach – goals of many American transportation planners: true high-speed rail (HSR in planning and transit lingo).

High Speed Rail in America
For many decades (if not longer) there has been a desire among transit advocates to connect America’s cities with a web of efficient, clean, fast trains. This transit mode would act as an environmentally friendly alternative to the automobiles that crowd urban highways and dirty the air, and to expensive, polluting planes. Advocates point to the successful HSR systems in Western Europe and Japan [2] and models for a future American system. Indeed, HSR does offer advantages over other transportation modes, but only under the right conditions. Those conditions include densely populated areas along the train route, relatively underdeveloped highway infrastructure, high gas prices, existing heavy passenger rail use, and relatively short distances. These conditions are needed because HSR becomes economically feasible when ridership is high. And ridership will only be high if it’s more cost effective for people to use HSR than it is to use other modes, or borrowing terms from economics, if the combination of cost (the price of a ticket) and duration (the time the trip takes) are lower than competing modes (road and air).

In Japan, where there are 65 million people living tightly along the 250 mile corridor between Tokyo and Osaka, HSR is an ideal solution. Similarly, the densely packed corridor in France between Paris and Lyon is a prime location. In Japan and France gas prices and population densities are high, intercity freeways are less extensive, and major urban areas are closely spaced. And even in these locations, HSR like other transit modes isn’t self-supporting. It requires government investment to fund the capital expense and support the high operating costs [3]. This investment is justified because of the high value of time saved by moving so many riders.

If you look at the United States, the conditions for HSR are far less favorable. Gas is cheap [4], the interstate highway system is vast, and excepting the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston [5], population centers are widely spaced across the continent. Today, on a national level, only about one half of one percent of passenger trips are made by train of any sort and just one tenth of one percent are taken on intercity rail. The Northeast Corridor is the most heavily used intercity passenger train route, but Amtrak’s semi-high-speed Acela train [6] deployed on that route only accounts for about three million trips annually. A number dwarfed by automobile trips on Interstate 95, the parallel freeway.

Despite these realities, the political support for HSR has grown in recent years. In 2009, as part of the much-touted, mid-recession American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Congress included, at the President’s urging, $8 billion for intercity rail, with an emphasis on HSR. Since then the Federal Railroad Administration and many state-level transportation agencies have been studying potential routes all over the country. The furthest down the track in these efforts is California, which rather fancifully expects to start the building an HSR line later this year. Unfortunately for HSR advocates, numerous studies (prominent examples here and here) have demonstrated the massive flaws in California’s plan. Given the huge costs and time to develop HSR, and that funding and grass roots support is largely absent, HSR is likely to go nowhere in California or anywhere else (with the lone potential exception of the Northeast Corridor).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Baltimore on Screen

by Conroy

This week, ESPN’s self-styled “sports and pop-culture” offshoot, is hosting Smacketology [1] an interactive March-madness-style tournament where readers vote on matchups of 32 of the most memorable characters from the acclaimed HBO series The Wire. This tournament exists, I suppose, as a pop-culture anticipation of the upcoming NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament [2], but also because so many of the Grantland senior staff are semi-obsessed with the show, which to be fair, does boast an undeniably impressive roster of realistic, interesting characters. Why else invent this completely meaningless tournament based on a show that’s been off the air for several years?

Of course, just because it’s meaningless doesn’t mean people don’t have strong opinions. From who will prevail (the odds-on favorite [3] is Omar, the homosexual street vigilante), to who was “snubbed” (no Ellis Carver or Rhonda Pearlman?!), to how each character was seeded (Jimmy McNulty is just a “3” seed?). For me, this tournament is nothing more than a curiosity, but I do have one beef. It seems that the tournament committee (or whoever at Grantland put this thing together) made one massive, unforgivable omission, the biggest character of all, the show’s beating heart, the city of Baltimore.

Place as Character
And that leads me to two separate but related thoughts. First, the idea of place, of setting, as a principal character. The Baltimore shown in The Wire is as inseparable from the show as the main criminals and cops. We see the decaying underbelly of the city. The characters inhabit it; they create and are the products of its devitalized social milieu. Dirty streets, boarded-up houses, depressed stores, corners surrendered to thugs and drug dealers. We see the violence that rots the city’s poor (and largely black) neighborhoods. We see the effects of the corruption and bureaucratic malaise, the numbing inertia of large institutions that are incapable of arresting the long social and economic decline of huge parts of the city. This may all seem rather bleak, but the show is vibrant because of its universe of characters and because all those characters lived in a “real” place. A great deal of the show takes place outside, on the city streets, at the port, on rooftops, at neighborhood bars and parks. If the city plays a central role it’s because the show was almost entirely shot on location [4]. David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun writer and the show’s creator, knows Baltimore and its criminal street scene intimately. That realism is transferred to the screen. This is only one view of Baltimore, the saddest parts of the city, but what’s seen on the screen is more or less true.

Joyce immortalized in his Dublin
This reminds me of the way other places have been used to emphasize and enliven great art. A prime example is the Dublin of James Joyce’s stories and novels; Dublin is as much a character in Ulysses as Leopold Bloom or Stephan Dedalus. Joyce famously said, and I’m paraphrasing, that if Dublin were to vanish from the Earth he hoped it could be reconstructed brick-by-brick from the pages of his book. Just note the intricacy of how the Dubliners traverse and inhabit the city in the novel. Even if you’ve never seen Dublin, as I hadn’t when I first read the book, Joyce’s prose renders powerful images and especially powerful impressions in the mind; in the end, the story is inseparable from the place. Joyce’s stories and characters are universal, they convey the human condition, but they’re grounded in a time and place. They’re intertwined with the Dublin of the author’s youth. There are countless authors who, like Joyce, create character from setting, Faulkner’s Mississippi and Dickens’ London are a couple of prominent examples.

Jumping to a different medium, think of Martin Scorsese’s best films, they take place in New York, from Taxi Driver, to Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. And it’s not the glamorous high-rises of Wall Street or midtown Manhattan or the wealthy neighborhoods of the Upper West Side, but working-class sections of the Bronx and Queens; the rough, lonely night streets. His characters are New Yorkers. It’s hard to imagine Travis Bickle, the anonymous taxi driver, prowling the streets of any other city, and of any other city being as hostile and hard on him as 1970s New York. And as Henry Hill says in Goodfellas, “We grew up near the airport [5], it belonged to us.” Indeed the mid-level crimes and heists of Hill and his gangster friends never rise above or beyond the streets of their neighborhood.

Baltimore on Screen
But this leads me to my second thought. As effective as The Wire is in incorporating Baltimore into the story, it shows a pretty grim side of the city. My hometown appears simultaneously dysfunctional, dangerous, and genuinely soul-crushing. Realistic or not, it’s not really how I want the image of the city conveyed to the rest of the world. I admit to a certain possessiveness and defensiveness in how Baltimore is depicted in the media. I suspect this is true of a great many people who take pride in their cities but who live in places that are only sporadically shown in the mass media. Some cities are used so commonly as settings for shows, movies, novels, any fiction, that you can gain a fair appreciation for the nuances of the place: New York and Los Angeles most obviously. Other common settings include Chicago, Washington, Miami, Boston, and San Francisco. London and Paris are popular international locales.  But for cities like Baltimore, such exposure is intermittent and shows like The Wire cast an incomplete perspective.