snakes in bangalore

from a letter home from bangalore in 2010

Mean people. This story doesn’t actually start with mean people. It starts with the wide variety of people – mostly people from the state of Bihar, I am told – that sell sundry goods on the streets. I am not talking about the people who set up shop somewhere on a blanket or tarp on the sidewalk to sell socks or clothes or bangles or DVDs. Rather, I mean the wandering vendors. First are the ones that wander near traffic lights and come up to cars when stopped, akin to windshield washers in US cities. Some of the things they sell are reasonably practical and you could see yourself possibly buying something – a rag to wash your windshield, or sunglasses, or magazines and books if stuck in unexpected
traffic. Sometimes umbrellas during monsoon season; sometimes electric tennis racquets for swatting at mosquitoes. And then, they sell toy helicopters. They aren’t small, either, these are helicopters are over a foot long, I would guess from trying to look at them without looking interested in the slightest. It is hard to imagine suddenly realizing the usefulness of a helicopter while sitting in traffic. Even if you were on your way to a kid’s birthday party or something, it seems that you wouldn’t opt from the helicopter since everyone would know precisely where you got it and roughly how much you paid. I presume that either the helicopters are actually a big seller or that they have a lot of leftovers, since they always seem to be zooming around between stopped traffic.

Similarly are the people who try to you sell you things while walking down the street – the ones who walk with you for a ways. Again, some of these items are reasonably useful and you could see yourself buying one on the street – an umbrella, sunglasses, a map. Even the idols or “Indian” trinkets probably appeal to enough tourists and such to make it worth it. And then there are the kids who get stuck (?) selling the wooden toys – namely, snakes and small backgammon sets. The snakes are the jointed ones that you hold by the tail and wave and can get to wriggle something like a snake in the air. Who decided that these items would be hot sellers on the street? Have you ever been walking down the street and felt the need for
a snake or a board game? I personally have not (though I do now have some inkling as to one situation in which such a thing could come in handy). Moreover, unlike some chains of sales where the refusal of the first item might lead the vendor to offer something more appealing to the sort of person who would refuse the first item, it seems hard to imagine that people that turn down the snake would be stoked by the backgammon set (they are always offered in that order, snake first). What’s more is that these boys are stationed every 30 feet or so down the sidewalk. I can imagine that there are some items – maybe jewelry or a new pair of sunglasses – where you initially refuse and then you think, “damn, that was silly, it’s a
reasonably good price and I could actually use a spare x.” In such a situation, this sales approach might work. But it seems hard that this scenario would play out with a snake. And yet, one boy will walk with you for 10 to 20 feet, emphatically saying “snake, madam” and as soon as you have made it clear that you have no interest in snakes, the next one is upon you with the exact same offer.

Anyway, all of this is by way of prelude to the next bit, to attempt to convince you that I have had a reasonable amount of interaction with fake – but with such real movements! – snakes of late. Also, I should point out that pedestrian traffic here is usually fairly fluid between the sidewalk and the road, moving from one to the other as the conditions of one get worse or someone is blocking one or the other. But, of course, sometimes the sidewalk is completely blocked and you have to opt for the road. Conversely, sometimes vehicles are parked by the curb, so that you cannot step off the sidewalk to go around the non/sentient obstacle.

Such was my luck the other day, when I was returning to work after a quick errand at lunch time. I can around a corner where a van was parked, blocking the ability to step off into the street, and was approached by two women carrying baskets. They were sort of round and squat baskets, like a slightly puffed up version of the sort of thing from which you would expect to have tortillas served. The actual sequence of events is a bit lost on me now but it seems that one woman asked for money; I tried to move around her and was blocked by the younger one, who grabbed my arm, and then the initial one opened her basket, which contained a snake that I am 99% sure was quite real and quite hissy. And, in one of
these India-type moments where you ask yourself later “did I really just do that to another human being?,” I took the blocking girl by the shoulders and forcibly moved her out of my way. Not very nice, perhaps, but then, neither was the snake.


pirates & seasteads (islands of good institutions?)

well, this is all new to me.

“off the coast of East Africa is environmentally a very favorable location [for sea-steadng] but the issue of piracy makes it forlorn,” says the institute for ethics and emerging technologies.

sea-steading was a new concept to me but, apparently, it involves ” creating permanent dwellings at sea, called seasteads, outside the territory claimed by the government of any standing nation.” thanks, wikipedia.

here’s the gist

The Seasteading Institute’s mission is to inspire political competition. In proximity to nations such as Somalia, Sudan and Saudi Arabia an atoll of innovative political thinking is very much needed. Why are there pirates in the first place? Foreign companies enabled by poor governance have polluted the shores and rivers and have left those nations without jobs or resources. Piracy is dangerous for all, yet it will continue as long as the causes are present.

What if seasteading could not only solve political instability, but the famine and piracy as well?

With little initial investment a small sea farming operation begins off the coast of Somalia.  The operator comes into a Somali port to hire workers; they are trained on the principles of sea farming, desalinization and hydroponics. As production grows, experienced workers are trained on constructing expanded farming quadrants, crop management and even given the support to begin their own operations.

As primarily a concept farm incorporated for social benefit and not for profit, almost all food production can be offloaded at little or no cost to support the local communities – greatly diminishing the food drought in that region.

The same farmers who helped grow the food sail back to shore and distribute it in the markets, creating local wealth and good will. By using almost exclusively Somali fishermen to operate these farms you are thereby providing an alternative to piracy in their communities. By supplying food into their communities you attack an urgent humanitarian crisis and add an additional incentive to avoid piracy.

So… what about the seastead? The food is given freely so there is not much purpose in raiding it, the staff is entirely made of the desperate fishers and farmers that no longer have a reason to be pirates, so their ransoms would not be profitable.

The status quo will still exist and will be the largest obstacle to success.  However, with the tide turning against the pirates on many fronts, and the specter of a stronger central government on the rise, even pirate masterminds will see the profitability in abandoning the trade for the increasing economic vitality of progress.


how is the body doing?

morning ayurveda lessons

dr. b, dr. s, & i

from a letter home from chennai in 2008, when i was there studying diabetes. drs. s & b, i hope it is OK to include this photograph!

To help add context to my research, I have undertaken a series of interviews with doctors and dieticians at the hospital to see how “biomedicine” in India “talks” about diabetes.  I have also interviewed five Ayurvedic practitioners on the same.  While four easily obliged to doing a one-hour interview on the topic, Dr. S, an 85-year-old practitioner declared that we could not begin with the diseased state, but had to begin at the beginning of Ayurveda.  Thus began some two weeks of early morning classes on Ayurveda by Dr. S and his son.  Dr. S is much aggrieved that the world does not know Sanskrit, and therefore cannot read and interpret the Ayurvedic texts for themselves to apply them to all aspects of living and research, which they would surely enhance.

Thus, every class includes at least one promise that I will learn Sanskrit (he swears I can do this quickly, which is how I have ended up buying three old (heavy!) ayurvedic textbooks).  The class also usually includes Dr. B (his son) reading in Sanskrit (Dr. S is nearly blind) from the texts, Dr. S interrupting when he remembers the verse to finish it off, and then usually his chiding his son on the fact that his Sanskrit is not up to snuff.

One discussion centered on the separation of the body, mind, sense and soul, the body primarily being a vehicle for the soul, the essence of the individual.  (After this class, I learned to begin our conversations not with “how are you?” but rather “how is the body?”).  Anyway, during this discussion, presumably to help illustrate the point, he said: You see, the soul is youthful, the soul is bubbling over with Ayurveda…but THE BODY is fatigued and THE BODY is SWEATING.”  By this point, he had risen out of his chair and removing his two shirts to relieve the sweating.  To prove his state, I was asked to both examine the shirts for their wetness and to feel them, in case one sensory experience was inadequate.

Then, addressing an invisible audience, he continued, pointing emphatically at his collarbone: THE COLLARBONE is DISlocated because THE BODY has fallen three times in the bathroom since January.

Since then, I have learned many things about his bodily state that I would have just as soon not know.  For example, he has a catch in the lower back due to an excess of wind cause by eating too many fried foods.  He also, at 75, suffered from weak urine flow, which he corrected through self-manipulation of the prostate…


used against pirates and tornadoes

the crew of a greek oil tanker resisted hijacking in the gulf of guinea by hiding in the ship’s safe room. evidently, safe rooms are increasingly being used as anti-piracy measures.

unlike in hijackings off the coast of Somalia on the opposite side of the continent, west African gangs have not sought ransoms, instead unloading cargo onto other ships to sell on the black market.