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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in groenester's LiveJournal:

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Monday, August 20th, 2012
12:39 pm
Almost a half-marathon :)
This morning, I started my run a little later than planned - getting up earlier is something I'm going to have to work on. Nevertheless, the weather was nice, the sun was not up yet and there was a nice breeze. As I am currently working on increasing my endurance and not worrying so much about speed, I ran for 1.5 hours. I covered over 12 miles, but not quite 13 (which would have been a half-marathon). With only 2 months left before the Lowell marathon, I'm going to have to keep adding 2-3 miles a week to my long runs.

Energy certainly gets depleted over such a long distance (and of course, I had not eaten before leaving - it's generally a bad idea to run right after eating, which is why a lot of marathon runners have a large pasta dinner the night before the marathon, loading up on "slow" carbs but giving the body time to digest them). However, it is water and electrolyte depletion that is the most challenging for me to deal with. Luckily, with a lot of people running around the Charles water fountains can be found every 3-4 miles on the side of the path.

Every time I do a distance close to a half-marathon I am amazed at how much better I feel than the previous time I did it, while my pace steadily increases. After my very first half-marathon 5 years ago, which I ran to support a friend after only 2 weeks of training, I could barely walk for a couple of days. This time, my recovery was almost instantaneous (banana, oatmeal and tea for breakfast help).

With this run, I am entering the second phase of my training program, where I will be increasing my weekly mileage to 45 or 50 miles from the current 30. I am pretty confident that I'll be able to complete the Lowell marathon (my second ever), and improve over my time from 4 years ago (3 hours 28). As for the more ambitious goal of qualifying for the Boston marathon I'll need to see how my body feels.
Monday, August 13th, 2012
8:32 am
Breaking the 7-minute mile
Yesterday morning I got up later than planned. My body was still slightly in pain after the Krav Maga workout two days earlier, and my motivation for running was low. However, after 20 minutes of stretching, walking around and thinking about it I finally managed to convince myself to put on my running shoes, shorts and T-shirt. Getting out the door is usually the hardest part about running for me.

I planned to run for 70 minutes. The first 5-10 minutes were all about getting to a pace I was comfortable with. My body was still not too happy, but once I reached the Esplanade I settled into a nice rhythm. Most importantly, I focused my mind on the side of the path I was running on. I was glad I started learning meditation a couple of months ago, because such intense focus would not have been possible for me without this training.

Surprisingly, soon after I could no longer see or hear other runners or anything else happening around me. I did perceive them, but as soon as my brain tried processing I redirected it to the side of the path. At first I had to make a conscious effort to do so; after a while it became automatic. This is when I realized why so few people smile back at me when I wave at them or say hello during my runs - it breaks their concentration. I decided that I would no longer do that, so that I could improve my own concentration as well.

Going through Harvard square on my way back, I initially planned to see if anything interesting was happening there. However, I barely noticed anyone around me, still focusing on the side of the path, except in a couple of occasions. This also explained why I had barely recognized the road along which I had run the Lowell marathon four years ago, when I biked along it yesterday - I was too focused on the running to notice landscape details or surrounding buildings.

By the time I was two blocks away from home I looked at my watch. 69 minutes had passed. I still had another minute to complete the run. Despite feeling physically tired, it seemed easy to sprint, so I did, reaching home just in time. Just over 10 miles in 70 minutes was a pace I could not have dreamed of even a few months ago. Yet now, I had reached it and I experienced one of the most intense runners' highs I ever had. And now, if you ask me what it takes to break the 7-minute mile, I'll say: It's all in the mind.
Monday, May 7th, 2012
11:51 pm
Random quotes from my trip to India

Questions from Nino: 1) Really? 2) Does it give you pleasure? 3) Does it bring you happiness?

From a poster: If you want to conduct an orchestra, you must turn your back to the crowd.

From a T-shirt: Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief (suffering) that strengthens the mind.

From Caitlin: You can't reduce the lives of great people to a list of quotes, the process itself really matters.

From Dr. Bhargava: Don't wait to fulfill your dreams.

From my friend: An essential part of any apology is not having to apologize for the same thing again.

From Laurent: By lying to others regularly, you eventually start lying to yourself.

From Rashida Bi: A child's smile adds years to your life.

From a blog: In India, if you don't have patience you will learn it, and if you have it you will lose it.

From a bus stop [translated from Hindi]: Duty is the only religion.

From Nity: Patience is a necessary quality in our work.

From my friend's brother: The challenges [in healthcare delivery] that we face in this country are very different from those in US.

11:44 pm
Travel notes: India (part 5)

March 13)

Pleasant surprise

In the morning, a pleasant surprise awaits me at the clinic – my missing shoe has been found! It is a pleasure to be able to wear running shoes instead of sandals again. I have been wearing sandals with socks during my time in Bhopal, only removing the socks once while visiting the Jain temple. The shoe is not even damaged.

Technical difficulties

We screen more children at the Chingari Trust, but unfortunately, my friend's main instrument – a portable retinoscope – is not functional because its battery is completely out of charge and the charger does not work in India. We had not been able to do anything about it before because of the long weekend that preceded. While the clinic had enough of its own instruments in place to make a full eye screening possibile, the Chingari center did not have any of its own equipment. To make things more complicated, today is a day of strike (bandh), so most businesses are closed. However, I manage to convince Tabish (the very nice guy in charge of Chingari's IT and records) to take me on his motorbike to look for either a replacement battery or a converter for the charger.

Battery hunting

We end up spending over 1.5 hours riding around and asking the owners of the few businesses that are open to help us out. One suggests dismantling an Indian charger and connecting the relevant wires directly to our battery (called “cell” here – similarly, a ruler is called a “scale”, most likely as a result of British influence). Another says that no such thing exists in India (!) that can help us. A third is willing to sell us a mini-retinoscope for “only” Rs. 3500.

Bhopal traffic

While our hunt for a solution proves fruitless, I really enjoy the bike ride, which feels pretty safe due to Tabish being very careful. I especially enjoy the part of the ride that takes us to Shamla Hills, an area of New Bhopal that looks like a natural park. Along the way I also have a bit of an epiphany about traffic in India. It is not completely chaotic and arbitrary, as I had thought at first. Instead, it is governed by a set of unwritten rules, a complicated system, granted, but one that all Indian vehicle operators seem to have learned and internalized. This explains the fairly low number of accidents (I have not witnessed any myself) relative to the extremely high entropy of the configuration space, so to say.

Back to Chingari

By now I have missed most of the screenings, but I help my friend wrap things up before going back to the clinic. We also get a chance to speak with Champa Devi Shukla, Rashida Bi's co-winner of the Goldman prize and co-founder of the clinic, also a very powerful woman. The walk back to the clinic is, as usual, punctuated by kids screaming “Hi” to me at every corner of Berasia Road (apparently nicknamed “Harassia Road”). I'm certainly used to it by now, but I still choose not to tell them my name to avoid being addresed by it later. At the clinic we meet two new volunteers, a couple from New York (a physician and a lawyer). In the evening I get the lawyer up to date on the ongoing legal cases around the Bhopal disaster.

March 14)

Last morning

My friend and I get up early in the morning and start seeing patients at 8 AM instead of the usual 8:30 AM. Since this is our last day at the Sambhavna clinic we try to see as many patients as possible, and end up seeing 12 of them in just over 3 hours. After that we quickly wrap up our notes, bring down our bags, say good-bye to Shahanaz (the very helpful volunteer coordinator at the clinic), let Nino take a few final pictures of us, and head to the airport.

Bhopal airport

The Bhopal airport is very new and small enough to walk to the planes (larger airports like the one in Chennai have buses to take passengers aboard). We get there early and since my friend is again not feeling well, take a break while waiting for the gate to open. The intense clinic work has certainly taken its toll on her (not as much on me since I was only doing simple things), so I let her rest until the flight. The flight itself, with a layover in Hyderabad, is pretty uneventful, and a prepaid taxi from the airport takes us to my friend's home in Chennai.

Dinner in Chennai

In the evening I go out for dinner with Nity and a few members of his family, as well as a couple of other Bhopal activists. I have to find his house on my own since my friend is not feeling well. I get to the right street, but call Nity because I can't recognize his house – but it turns out I am right in front of it. Our dinner is at Bamboo Garden, an Asian restaurant where the food is just spicy enough for me. I must note that, thanks to my meals at the Sambhavna clinic, my tolerance for spice has increased quite a bit. After I come back home I indulge in a long hot shower (the showers at Sambhavna were lukewarm at best) and fall asleep shortly afterwards.

March 15)

Pondicherry trip

In the morning we set off for Pondicherry and Auroville, two cities in Tamil Nadu about 200 km away from Chennai. We get a car with a driver for this purpose, and my friend's mother joins us on this adventure. The ride is pretty uneventful, except for the fact that the part of it outside of Chennai looks drastically different from Chennai itself. I enjoy looking at the Bay of Bengal, as well as the luscious vegetation of Tamil Nadu. I can't follow most of the conversation in the car as it happens in Tamil (both the drivers and my friend's mother speak only limited English), so I focus on observing the surroundings. There are quite a few temples and mosques (although, unlike in Bhopal, it is rare to hear the muezzin in Chennai and its neighboring cities), and lots of posters with politicians' faces. Other frequently seen posters advertise schools (by the top-scoring students on standardized exams), tutoring and “personality grooming” - not sure what exactly that could be.

Matrimandir, Auroville

We arrive to Auroville in the early afternoon and walk to the Visitors' Center, where we are made to watch a 10-minute movie before being granted access to view the Matrimandir (mother's temple) – getting inside requires an in-person reservation well in advance, and is otherwise a privilege restricted to the inhabitants of Auroville. Auroville is an experiment conceived of by the Sri Aurobindo and a French traveler turned spiritual guru referred to as “The Mother”. The experiment consists of building a multinational community coexisting in peace and meditating together while leading a sustainable life of service and devotion to the community. It is currently inhabited by almost 2100 people from around 50 different countries.


While a bit skeptical about the spiritual ideals of Auroville being practicable, I was definitely impresed with their sustainability efforts, ranging from water and solar energy management to reducing, reusing and recycling almost all their waste and even cultivating a number of fruits and vegetables locally despite the challenging soil and climate. I decide to support their efforts by purchasing some postcards and small souvenirs.


By the time we get into Pondicherry from Auroville, I am pretty hungry (my friend and her mother had brought lunch with them), but my Lonely Planet guidebook helps us quickly locate a French bakery called Baker St. Pondicherry, being a former French colony, has a lot of streets with French names and a few French shops, but is otherwise a pretty typical Tamil Nadu city. The lunch is very satisfying, and the pastries taste authentic (the additional charm comes from the South Indian owner speaking fluent French with customers like me).

Beach and temples

After lunch we spend a little bit of time on the beautiful beach, and then head to the temples, one dedicated to Shiva and the other, to Sri Aurobindo. The former is quite crowded, but I go through the motions of getting my forehead smeared with white and red powder and kneeling in front of the altar. The latter is very meditative and quiet due to its silence policy, and it has a very nice flower arrangement in the middle. However, neither of these temples impresses me as much as the Matrimandir which we saw in Auroville. On our way back we discuss the the Indian education system and I make a list of souvenirs to buy before returning to the US.

March 16)


I start the day by writing postcards to a number of my friends and sending them off. The stamps for a postcard only cost Rs. 15, instead of the Rs. 38 I paid for the (larger and heavier) greeting cards.

Souvenir shopping

After the post office my friend and I go shopping for souvenirs. We start by visiting a large mall, which, apart from the store names, does not feel very different from its American counterparts. We go on to visit a couple of smaller stores, which offer less variety, but do contain a few nice finds. We also stop at a bakery which has a combination of Indian and Western baked goods (samosas are on one side, brownies, on the other). We finish the shopping trip at a store called “Spices & Nuts”, which offers a variety of products, both Western-inspired (such as protein bars similar to the ones I had brought from the US) and Indian (such as spice cabinets). In general, India seems to be making a transition towards a more Western-like country, and my friend specifically expresses concern about the rise of superficiality and the disintegration of family values in the city. As for me, while I don't think globalization can be reversed, I feel that India has the collective wisdom to make it result in “the best of both worlds”, rather than the worst.


In the evening I buy a few trinkets from a street vendor, pack my bags (surprisingly managing to fit in everything I want to take back), and wait for the taxi that takes me to the Chennai airport shortly after midnight.

11:07 pm
Travel notes: India (part 4)

March 9)

Chingari Trust

This day marks the date of our first visit to the Chingari (Hindi: flame) rehabilitation center, which is an organization providing free services to the children born with various physical and mental disabilities due to the aftermath of the gas disaster or the water disaster in Bhopal. The center currently serves over 150 kids aged 1 through 18, and provides speech therapy, physical therapy, special education classes and all kinds of other services, for both the kids and their families. The Chingari Trust was founded by two women, Rashida Bi and Champa Devi Shukla, co-winners of the Goldman prive for environmental activism on behalf of the Bhopal survivors. They are incredibly powerful women who have dedicated their lives to helping the survivors (including the second and third generation survivors like the kids at Chingari) live a life of dignity. We had met Rashida Bi the week before.

Examining kids

We get settled into a room with enough space to do eye tests, and we see close to 30 kids over a 3-hour period from 10:30 AM to 2 PM. Many of them suffer from mental disabilities such as cerebral palsy or developmental retardation, and a lot of them cannot walk due to congenital deformities, or have little control over their motion. We meet a lot of kids who we havd seen previously in the powerful documentary called Bhopali, by Max Carlsson. As it turns out, quite a lot of these kids also suffer from various problems related to their vision.

Warm greetings

I am especialy touched by this one kid wearing a white shirt and pants, who immediatebly comes and gives me a hug when I step into the Chingari center. He is really endearing, as are most other kids we meet. It breaks my heart to realize that most of them may never be able to lead an autonomous life or fully overcome their situational disadvantages, but it gives me hope to see how happy they (as well as their parents) are at Chingari, and how much progress a lot of them are making towards autonomy. As Rashida Bi told me earlier, a child's smile adds years to your life – and this is doubly true of the Chingari kids.

Weekly meeting

After we get back to Sambhavna and have our late lunch (thankfully the cook at the canteen is willing to accommodate us) we join the weekly meeting of all Sambhavna staff members. We both get a chance to introduce ourselves and speak about our work (the entire meeting is conducted in Hindi, providing a great challenge for both my speaking and my listening comprehension skills, the latter being a bit weak). The meeting becomes intense and slightly chaotic towards the end, when reporting and warning of foreseeable absences is discussed. However, the meeting itself is a great example of how things can be run democratically, with everyone's voice being heard.

Sweet slumber

In the evening I finally get the change to play the steel-string acoustic guitar that Frank very helpfully tunes for me. Thanks to my friend's help, I also finally manage to get a good night's sleep. I tried sleeping under the mosquito net provided by the clinic for the first two days, but I probably set it up wrong and get bitten by mosquitoes all night long. The following two days I try to sleep under a smaller mosquito net (shaped like a tent) that I had bought in the US, but that ends up in failure as well as my legs cannot be fully covered and I get bitten again. Finally I get a different mosquito net set up with my friend's help, and this time I do not get bitten at all.

March 10)

Cultural excursion

Needless to say, I feel very energized again. We see a lot of patients once again, and ask the remaining ones to come back on Wednesday morning. After-hours we also screen a couple of Sambhavna staff members. After work I join the other volunteers (Laurent, Alex, Frank and Chelsea) in a trip to the New Market. We all manage to fit into a single auto by having Chelsea sit in Frank's lap and me in the front seat next to the driver. While I stay away from street food as well as bhang (a marijuana-like substance rolled into small balls sold legally in India), I do manage to find a few greeting cards (not as good as postcards, but I like them) and some souvenirs. We try to stop at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal's culutral center, but it is closed for the day. We then finish the day with some tea and deserts at Cafe Coffee Day, a Western-style coffeeshop, and also stop by to listen to an azaan competition near the Taj-ul-masjid mosque, on the way to the clinic.

Camera rescue

In the morning, I find out that Laurent had left his camera in the auto we took to get home from Cafe Coffee Day. However, one of the local basti guys (who apparently barely spoke English) agreed to take him back near the cafe where he had taken the auto from, and surprisingly, helped him recover the camera! Needless to say, Laurent's feeling about Bhopal improved a lot.

March 11)

Science and activism

Shortly after lunch, my friend and I head back to the house of the two activists we had been staying with earlier. We have a very productive meeting withthem there, and it actually takes us over three hours. We also meet two very nice people, trustees of the Sambhavna clinic, named Chandana and Dr. Bhargava. Both of them have a long history of involvement with the Bhopal campaign, and Dr. Bhargava also has a very interesting career as a scientist (he says that 25 of his friends, including Watson and Crick, are laureates of the Nobel prize). Since he is a geneticist, we also talk about which traits are and are not influenced by genes. Chandana, although she does not talk as much as her travel companion, is both a scientist and an actress who plays in Hindi as well as Telugu movies. When we talk about fluency in different languages, the conversation once again turns to genetic predispositions, and I strongly disagree with Dr. Bhargava's belief that the ability to learn foreign languages is significantly determined (or even influenced) by genes. We part ways after having tea.

Bharat Bhavan

After this pleasant meeting we head to Bharat Bhavan (which can be loosely translated as “House of India”), a cultural center in Bhopal near the big lake. We enjoy the various art exhibitions we see there; these include an exhibit on Aboriginal (adivasi) art, a photo exhibit featuring very poignant balck-and-white photos from all over India, a mask exhibit with decorated faces by a group of local artists, and even a collection of poetry left by various visitors to the museum over the years. As the museum is closing, I inquire about postcards and get offered an “original print” of an adivasi painting for “only” Rs. 500. I manage to negotiate it down to Rs. 300, as I have learned the skill of bargaining from my friend who is quite good at it.

Dining in Bhopal

As we are both hungry, we head to a restaurant nearby. However, the food there is too spicy for me so I ask my friend to join me at Cafe Coffee Day once she's done with hers. The walk along the lake is quite picturesque, but it is also a little scary as we are walking on the side of the road for a big part of it. The boardwalk by the lake is so far the only place where I have seen couples hoding hands (although same-sex friends holding hands is considered perfectly acceptable, heterosexual public displays of affection are still very rare in India). A couple of them even kiss, and this would have been scandalous just a few years ago. Once at the cafe, we have some good food and a nice conversation before heading back to Bharat Bhavan and taking an auto from there.

March 12)

Holi day 2

This is the second day of Holi, on which we also have a day off. I take adantage of the opportunity to write postcards (or, rather, greeting cards) to some of my friends, but do not get to send them as the post office is closed. I initially think about going to Sanchi, the site of some of the nicest and most ancient Buddhist temples in the state of MP (Madhya Pradesh), but find out that all the cars from the agency I had used for Bhojpur are spoken for, and the bus may or may not be running. Then Nino (the Australian photographer) and I decide to head to Taj-ul-masjid, a famous kmosque in Bhopal (and apparently the largest one outside the Middle East).


We get there just after noon, and spend some time exploring the premises. The mosque is indeed quite impressive by its size, but the real impressions come from our own contact with the locals – a group of students pursuing Islamic studies living in the dormitory across from the mosque. While they live in a very crowded space, they are very friendly and invite Nino and myself to come in. The tell us about their studies, the story of the mosque, and make us read some verses from the Qur'an inscribed on their door (in English translation). We initially converse in English, but when they reach the limit of their proficiency I switch to Hindi (which is generally, though not always, better than their English). This, in my experience, yields better results than going directly for Hindi, avoiding the possibility of people switching to English right away.

Old guard

As we are leaving the mosque an elderly man comes up to us to chat. At first I just find him strange, but later on he asks me if I'm married (until then I thought only women got asked this question in India), strokes my hand and out of the blue says “I love you” in English. I am not sure how serious he is, but, not being even remotely interested, I tell Nino that we should go. However, he decides to take a few more shots (note to self: plan for longer excursions when accompanied by a professional photographer). We finally leave and go for a walk.

Further adventures

Since neither of us knows the city well, we decide to get a cup of tea at a street stall (for Nino) and sit on the sidewalk by the lake for a little bit. After that we make our way to the so-called Taj Mahal, former residence of the Begum, that had been abandoned until recent efforts to restore it. We find ourselves in the company of local youths who volunteer to take us around. I decide to stay behind at first, and then one of the young men asks me about Canadian currency and skillfully leads the conversation to a request for sample (“Ban the queen, please!”) - however, I tell him that I have no money on me and he loses interest. I end up joining Nino and his guides, who take us around and all the way to the top, from where we get a magnificent view of the city. I have a hard time explaining to them that few people pray in Canada, and that I myself am an atheist (they are Muslim). We thank them for the tour and get an auto to the clinic – a few drops fall, but do not become rain.

Hotel = restaurant

In the evening, Nino and I go to dinner at the Manohar hotel (restaurant), which serves quite good and inexpensive food. I have a good discussion with Nion and I am impressed with his ability to sell off his worldly possessions and go travel around the world, volunteering with different organizations and taking pictures. We decide to walk back to the clinic and we both enjoy it.

Monday, April 23rd, 2012
5:51 pm
Travel notes: India (part 3)
March 5)

Shoe incident

In the morning my friend is feeling better, so we decide to go to the Sambhavna clinic in the afternoon and stay there for the rest of our trip. Sambhavna (possibility in Sanskrit) is a free clinic that serves communities affected by gas exposure or water contamination, and was built by survivor groups with the financial support of the Bhopal Medical Appeal, a non-profit based in the UK. However, as we are about to get into an “auto” (rickshaw) I realize that out of the two shoes I left on the porch the day before, only one still remains. The search for the other one proves fruitless, so we ask the driver to take us to the shoe store on the way. Unfortunately, the running shoes available there only go up to size 10, whereas I need a size 11. The only solution we find is for me to buy a pair of size 10 sandals, which I manage to fit in by loosening the zippers.

Sambhavna clinic

When we finally reach the Sambhavna clinic it is lunchtime there. I strike a conversation with two healthworkers, both of them employed by the clinic. Later on I get a chance to speak to Laurent, a French photographer who has a love-hate relationship with India (more about it later). I tell him about the history of the struggle for justice in Bhopal, as well as that of my personal involvement with it. We then go on to discuss the connection between the struggle and the protest against the nuclear plants that are supposed to be built in India, one of them by a French corporation called Areva.

Other volunteers

After this long conversation I settle in the male volunteers' dormitory and meet the other volunteer currently there, named Alex (also from France). He is not feeling well that day due to sun exposure the day before, and neither is my friend (although she manages to set up a meeting with the doctros at Sambhavna and discuss referrals and other details of the eye screenings we plan to do with them). In light of my own fatigue I decide to take it easy for the rest of the day and use the time to catch up on my notes. I find out that all the meals are catered for the volunteers, and we only have to pay for breakfast.

Volunteers' dorm

The dorm room I have can accommodate up to five people, and is fairly comfortable. The big problem is the abundance of mosquitoes (not only in the dorms, but throughout the clinic). One of the nice things about the clinic is its focus on sustainability, so all the water in the washroom gets reused for irrigating the garden containing Ayurvedic plants, and all the soap and dishwashing liquid (as welll as laundry detergent) are made from plants and natural ingredients. There is also composting, which then provides fertilizers for the garden. And, as elsewhere in India, there is of course no toilet paper.

March 6)

Morning photography

I wake up early (right after the muezzin's call for prayer) and go to the garden to photograph some of the plants, along with the rest of the clinic. There are over 25 different kinds of plants growing here, and each one is supposed to provide relief for a particular condition. The clinic's model is a combination of allopathic (Western) and Ayurvedic medicine, including other treatments native to India such as panchakarma and yoga. The clinic is staffed by about 60 people, many of whom are themselves survivors of the Bhopal disaster.

Eye screenings

After my photo excursion I have a quick breakfast consisting of a protein bar, oatmeal and tea (the latter made from tulsi, a plant that grows in the clinic's garden, and which I really enjoy). When it's done I accompany my friend downstairs, where we set everything up for the eye examination. We decide that I will take down patient names, ages, history and complaints, as well as perform the basic vision test using the charts available in the room given to us. However, soon after the beginning of our work I'm also entrusted with the task of working with the autorefractometer, which measures the refractive error in the eyes (i.e. whether a person is myopic, hypermetropic, or astigmatic). I have a hard time locating the pupil on the screen at first, but by the end of the day I'm able to handle the equipment without any major difficulty.

First patients

We manage to see 10 patients that day, working from 9 AM to 3 PM and taking a short lunch break. One thing that surprises me here is the fact that the clinic is only open until 3:30 PM or so, but then again, it does get to serve over 100 patients a day even during that time. All the staff is very friendly and helpful, though it takes me some time to get used to the fact that not all our requests get immediately addressed. As my friend tells me repeatedly, it takes more time to get things done in India, but they do get done.

Qazi Camp

I should also describe the neighborhood the clinic is located in. It is an area called Qazi Camp, mostly containing bastis (“slums” is not a work I like to use in this csae, because it is not specific enough). I would not necessarily describe the people living there as poor, though many of them must definitely live below the poverty line. The things that strike me the most are the density of the population (there literally seems to be no space between adjacent brick houses, for instance) and the lack of sanitation (rainwater and filth collect in gutters, garbage is thrown on the street, men are frequently seen spitting, urinating, or even defecating outdoors, and all kinds of animals, including dogs, cows and goats, roeam freely between the houses and the streets). However, most of the people I see around are friendly and cheerful, and kids inevitably wave at me and smile whenever they see me.

March 7)


We are definitely adjusting well to the working conditions here, and get to see 15 patients today. One particularly memorable patient is an 8-year-old girl named Zuberiya, who enjoys her vision screening so much that she wants to do another one – luckily, my chart has 4 different sides (English, Hindi, Urdu and broken circles), so I manage to entertain her for some time while my friend is working with her mother. She is so full of life and excitement that it's a real pleasure to see her.

New Market

In the afternoon, when all our work is done, I head out to the New Market with my friend as well as Laurent, the French photographer. We start by buying some supplies at the local drugstore (like a CVS, but a lot smaller in size, and literally packed with merchandise). After that we walk around and enjoy the folorfulness of the clothes (both for sale and worn by the people around us), the lively atmosphere and the friendly salespeople (it seems that Laurent has already befriended all of them in his past trips here, because they all recognize him and greet him). I end up buying two dictionaries (Hindi-English and English-Hindi) for a price that I negotiate down to Rs. 600 (about $12, or roughly a tenth of what it may have cost to buy these in the USA). I also get some mehendi kits for future fundraisers. Unfortunately I do not manage to find postcards anywhere, no matter how hard I look.

March 8)

Holi day

We get the day off today because of Holi – the festival of light and color in India. Holi usually involves people throwing packets of colorful powder at each other and rejoicing in the streets. But Laurent, Alex, Frank and Chelsea (a Canadian couple who are also volunteering at the clinic, but staying in one of the guest rooms instead of the dorm rooms) and myself decide to rent a car (with a driver) to go see Shiva's temple in Bhojpur. The ride there goes through New Bhopal, a more recently constructed and more opulent part of the city, which feels like anoasis of order and cleanliness in comparison with Old Bhopal. Bhojpur itself (like Bhopal, named after Raja Bhoja) is even further away, and is located in the middle of a rather densely forested area.

Shiva's temple

We are aksed to take our shoes off upon arriving to the temple (though I keep my socks on). As many other temples dedicated to Shiva, this one contains a large “lingam” (phallic symbol) at its center; it is a temple that is close to 1000 years old, but it continues to function even today – we see a group of local worshippers perform a series of bhajans (incantations) in front of it. There are also some ancient ruins nearby, which we go to see in the company of two local boys who volunteer to guide us. There is a really nice river there as well, but it is now essentially dried up and split into two halves. We also visit a Jain temple nearby, which is a lot smaller than Shiva's temple, but also much more intimate. A local woman also performs some incantations there, and afterwards explains the meaning and the symbolism of the statues in the temple at my request.

Second pilgrimage

After the religious pilgrimage we drive around the large lake at the center of Bhopal before I get dropped off at the house of the activists that I stayed with for the first couple of days. We do some work together, and then Bridget, another fellow activist who is wrapping up her anthropological research in India, pays a visit. We all discuss the commotion that followed the driver of the car I was in earlier asking for a higher price than expected, drink some alcohol and talk about various things. At the end I get treated to an exciting ride on Bridget's bike.

Interview with Laurent

Another event worth mentioning is that I get interviewed by Laurent in the morning. This is my first interview for a while, and I am especially happy because we do it in French, a language that I enjoy a lot because I don't get enough opportunities to practice. Laurent gets me to share my thoughts on mathematics, in particular, the modeling of risk, as well as academic research. We also talk quite a lot about activistm, my motivation for getting involved with the campaign and my thoughts on its future directions. Of course, the nuclear plant in Jaitapur and its connections to the lessons learned (or not learned) from Bhopal plays a big role. We are both pretty satisfied with this 1.5-hour long interview.d kids inevitably wave at me and smile whenever they see me.

Sunday, March 25th, 2012
5:59 pm
Travel notes: India (part 2)

March 1)


I wake up to the smell of burning incense. Turns out is is placed at the altar dedicated to Sai Baba, a saint my friend's family worships. As today is Thursday, both her brother and his wife are fasting in his honor - apparently this happens weekly for 9 weeks. They are only allowed to eat fruit and sweets, both of which, however, can be taken from the shrine as well.

The return

My friend returns in the early afternoon. Soon after she takes me for a walk in the neighborhood, extremely busy and extremely vibrant. Trying to exchange money fails again (this time the network is down); however, I do manage to mail a letter (though waiting in line - which people here don't seem to respect - getting and gluing on the stamps takes up almost 15 minutes). We also pass by a Ganesha temple. I still have some trouble crossing the road in the midst of the busy traffic (comprised of bikes, cycles, three-wheelers or autos, cars, buses and trucks all moving at different speeds), but I am definitely getting better at it.

Exchanging money

My friend's brother finally drives me to a foreign exchange agency in a different neighborhood, where I get a good rate of 49 Rs/$. Interestingly unlike American or Canadian money, which has different political leaders on different bills, all Indian bills have Gandhi on them. After we come back my friend takes me to the roof of her building, where we witness a magnificent Chennai sunset. We both pack and go to sleep so we can get up in time for our morning flight to Bhopal, the city I have been wanting to visit for so long.

March 2)

Digression on marriage

My friend has two brothers, an older one living in the US and a younger one living in Chennai with his mother, wife and son. The older brother had a "love marriage", i.e. the kind that we are used to in the West, and in his wedding pictures, he and his wife look happy, rather than serious as is more commonly seen. The younger one had an arranged marriage. Interestingly, after a few years he seems quite happy, while his older brother appears to have a lot of tension in his marriage. This is consistent with the general trend reported in, among others, The Art of Choosing. I've often thought I would prefer an arranged marriage if it were in my culture...

Getting on the plane

In the morning we take an auto (three-wheeler) to the airport. This is the second craziest ride I've ever been on. The auto weaves in and out of traffic, cutting off buses and bikes on turns and keeping a very small distance around it. It's a very intense, but quick, ride. The airport is equally crazy. I lose my Swiss Army knife to the security check. We almost miss the bus to the plane because the same gate is used for multiple flights in short succession. We finally realize that the connecting flight's departure point is used as the destination for our flight, and the bus takes us directly to the runway, from which we board the plane.

Getting to Bhopal

A 1.5-hour flight to Hyderabad and a 2.5-hour flight to Bhopal later, we reach our destination. The Bhopal airport is pretty isolated, and there is not much of a choice in autos. After some bargaining, my friend and I finally agree to share the ride with two other people. When the dirver turns around and starts talking about me in Hindi I get pretty upset but don't show it. Then one of our fellow passengers (whom I had spoken with earlier) tells him that I actually speak Hindi, which surprises him - but I tell him to keep his eyes on the road when he turns around to ask me. At the end, I tell him we're only going to pay the amount mentioned, and not more (though even that is thrice the normal).

First night in Bhopal

We finally reach our destination - a nice house on the lake owned by two of the members of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB). We settle in, enjoy some food and chat with other activists who are already there. At dinnertime I turn out to be one of the few vegetarians in the group, and get to eat the vegetarian noodles from a nearby restaurant. However, they turn out to be quite spicy and I literally start crying. This actually turns out to be a good thing because for the rest of my time there, I get special treatment - all my food is made with no spice at all. We stay up for a while setting the agenda for the upcoming weekend meeting.

March 3)

The meeting

The meeting starts early in the morning. There are both local and international activists presents, a total of 15 people. Two are longtime activists who coordinate the campaign on the ground. Four represent survivor groups, and have been directly affected by the disaster. Another is a local activist, and four are environmental activists from South India. One person is from the United Kingdom, and myself, my friend and another person are from North America. We have intense discussions, with English or Hindi translation as necessary. The discussions are punctuated by several short breaks for chai (tea) and a longer break for lunch.

The activists

Despite the busy agenda, we manage to finish on time, and then some of us break into working groups. Altogether, we end up working for almost 12 hours. I am particularly impressed by the energy and combative spirit of the survivor groups' representatives because of the way they are still fighting for justice 27 years after the disaster, despite their severe health issues and advanced age for some. I am energized by everyone's passion and determination, so much that I decide to do some more campaign-related work after all our meeting work is done (and I am served a delicious and, critically, mild, dinner), and I finally fall asleep around midnight.

March 4)

New people and experiences

Today we are joined by a few new people, including two lawyers (a woman and a man) who work pro bono on the Bhopal-related legal cases. We spend a good part of the afternoon arguing about the different cases still pending in Indian courts [requires author's permission for reposting]. At the end of our 2-day meetings, which ends with lots of decisions and action items for everyone, we do not have the energy for more work. Instead, we talk about various things unrelated to the meeting. I get invited to smoke weed, and although I've never smoked before I agree to try. It make me light-headed and happy, a good state to be in after an intense meeting!

Indian hospitality

My friend is not feeling well, so I get her to rest. In the evening she has a little food and some medication. Many of the attendees leave that evening or the next morning, so I take the time to socialize with them as much as possible. Something I notice about my hosts (both in Chennai and in Bhopal) is that they treat guests like their own family. While I have been raised in very similar traditions of hospitality, it makes me a little uncomfortable to be on the receiving, rather than the giving, end of such efforts. However, I decide to play along and enjoy it while it lasts. I also enjoy the possibility of using Western style toilets and showers.


I should specify what Indian toilets and showers are like. The toilets are very low, squatting toilets and instead of toilet paper, one is expected to use a water jar to clean oneself. While I have succeeded in using such a toilet once out of necessity, I would not willingly repeat the experience. As for Indian showers, they consist of a low faucet and two buckets, a large and a small one. The idea is to fill up the big bucket and then use the small one to pour water on yourself. While I can certainly see the environmental advantages of this approach (perhaps I even agree with it in principle) this did not seem sufficiently convincing for me to actually try.

Sleeping arrangements

In Bhopal I sleep on a flat mattress placed on the floor, which is actually quite comfortable. There are two things that tend to interfere with the quality of my sleep; the first one is mosquitoes, which are quite abundant in the area. My US-made natural insect repellent does not work too well on Indian mosquitoes. Luckily, a plug-in repellent alleviates the problem. The second one is the call to prayer. Because Bhopal has a sizable Muslim population, the muezzin usually calls the faithful ones to prayer five times a day. The first time usually happens around 5 AM, and it is had to sleep through it. These chants become more of an unpleasant feature.

Thursday, March 1st, 2012
2:16 am
Travel notes: India (part 1)

February 27)

The departure 

After finally wrapping up my remaining tasks I take a cab to Logan airport and board the plane to London. Even though it's only 6 PM, I am sufficiently sleep-deprived from the previous night that I manage to fall asleep even before the plane takes off. In keeping with my strategy to combat jetlag by adjusting to the local time in India, I sleep through the entire flight.

February 28)

The layover

I wake up again in London, get off the plane, go through security and continue sleeping once I get to the gate. An hour before my flight leaves for Chennai, India, I head to the shops to get some food and a pen. Before boarding I get the chance to visit the "multi-faith room" which contains materials not only for the major religions, but also for Sikhism and Baha'i. On the topic of religion, the visa application for India has a mandatory religion field, for which I had to choose "Other" and write in "Atheism".

The second flight

I spend most of my time on the flight reviewing the little Tamil I once knew (in keeping with the tradition of never visiting a place unless I can at least somewhat speak its language). I also watch "Dangerous Liaisons" to prevent myself from falling asleep, and it does the job of keeping me awake. We finally land in Chennai around 1 AM local time and I am picked up by the driver.

February 29) 

The ride home 

The driver was sent by my friend's brother, and I am glad to have him as my chauffeur. He expertly navigates the endless flow of traffic, both on foot and by car. In my tired state of mind I think he is asking me to drive, until I realize that he is actually offering me the passenger seat (Indians drive on the left). My first impressions of Indian traffic: lanes do not exist, traffic lights are only a suggestion, and the right of way is given to the driver who goes faster, has a bigger vehicle or honks louder.

Interesting signs

These are some interesting signs that I saw along the way:

  • Emergency 24-hour clinic for head injury and trauma (is there so much of it that a 24-hour clinic is needed?)
  • Ladies hostel and beauty parlor (seems like a strange combination) 
  • Goodluck Internet cafe (good luck getting online there!)
Other sights

We also pass by a construction site for the metro, which is scheduled to open in 2013 (I remain a little skeptical). The chauffeur also points out a campus of Anna University, 'the best university in Tamil Nadu'. I tell him I've heard of it but refrain from going into the details about the context. He tells me that he lived his whole life in Chennai and likes Hollywood. We discuss the abundance of stray, or 'loose', dogs, on Chennai's streets, and then arrive to destination, where I am greeted by my friend's family.

Morning in Chennai

I manage to wake up at 7:30 AM, vindicating my jetlag-fighting technique once more. Food is a source of concern for me, both in terms of spiciness and the likelihood of an upset stomach. I am quickly reassured on both counts since my friend's mother and sister-in-law go out of their way to accommodate me. I do get overfed, both at breakfast and early lunch, so I am glad to arrange a meeting with Nity, a well-known environmental activist working (among other things) on the Bhopal disaster.

Afternoon with Nity 

Nity picks me up and takes me to his collective's office. The collective is a democratic, open group focusing mainly on environmental issues. After working for some time, we go to a nice restaurant called "Vegetarian Eden". On the way, Nity has a conversation with a journalist regarding the controversy surrounding the nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu. After lunch we work  at Nity's place for a while and head out for Indian tea (made with milk and sugar, different from my regular tea, but quite enjoyable).

Riding the cycle 

In India, "cycle" is a bicycle while "bike" is a motorcycle. After tea, we ride cycles to the beach by the Adyar river and I welcome the exercise as well as the thrill of a ride in the chaotic afternoon traffic (luckily, Nity was able to find a helmet for me). Madhura, Nity's 5-year-old daughter, was pretty comfortable sitting in the basket in Nity's cycle. We pass by a park owned by the Theosophical society, a construction site where I see a worker balance 8 large bricks on her head, and multiple street vendors.

The turtle egg hatchery 

Our first stop is a turtle egg hatchery, created by local youth to help preserve the endangered species of sea turtles in this part of the Bay of Bengal. Nity tells me about a member of his collective, Saravanan, a young man slightly older than myself, who for 11 years would collect sea turtle eggs on the shore and preserve them from humans and other animals by placing them in the hatchery, and then, 45 days later, help the hatchlings find their way to the water. It is a very impressive project.

The Adyar estuary 

We go on to see the Adyar estuary, shaped like a barbell. Unfortunately, the river is threatened by two recently built 4- and 5-star hotels whose owners want to displace the nearby fisherfolk's village to provide visitors with an unobstructed view of the river. We are fortunate to observe a local fisherman casting a net. Nity tells me about negative impacts of fiberglass boats brought by NGOs after the 2004 tsunami. Native wooden boats (catamaran = kattu (to tie) + maram (wood, tree)) remain very much in use, however. As we leave, we witness a flock of terns (who come here to winter) take off from the surface of the Adyar river.

An activist's character 

Nity tells me a lot about the vegetation in the area, including a plant called "Ravana's moustache". More impressive than his knowledge of the environment and his extensive experience working to protect it, however, is his seemingly unlimited patience with everyone around him. I also notice how many people stop to talk to him on the streets, and how many he stops to talk to: a beggar, a cycle repair shop owner, kids burning discarded electronics to get valuable metallic parts (exposing themselves to toxic fumes)... I think that knowledge, patience and belonging to community are important to an activist's character.

Evening at home

After coming home and taking a shower, I spend some time playing with Sarvesh (Sai for short), my friend's 5-year-old nephew. I manage to teach him how to order cards by suit and denomination. I am impressed with his proficiency in English. I finish off the day with an engaging discussion with his father, touching on topics of technology's effect on society, the transformation of Chennai into a "concrete jungle", and societal expectations and pressures both in India and in the United States.
Monday, December 12th, 2011
9:35 pm
Я иду на Новогодний подарочный онлайн-тренинг «100 дела за 5 дней». А ты?
That's all for now - hope to post something more substantive soon (after I hopefully finish all my outstanding business thanks to this training) :)

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010
12:07 am
The year (and a half) in review
It's hard to believe that I haven't written anything since March 2009 - but thanks to the pressure from a few of my friends I am making yet another attempt at giving my blog a fresh start :)

Throughout this past year I served as the environment chair at my dorm, and worked on implementing many different environmental initiatives. Here is a brief summary of the successes, the failures, and the lessons learned.

First, the successes. I continued my predecessor's policy of encouraging every resident to bring their own eating-ware to the dorm events - the weekly coffee hour and the monthly brunch. I expanded on her efforts in three ways: diversifying the prizes to be drawn in the raffle among those who brought their eating-ware, keeping track of people who did not bring their own eating-ware as well as those who did, and having one (well-publicized) event at which no disposable eating-ware was provided.

As a result, the percentage of people bringing their own eating-ware went up from 45% at the beginning of my term to close to 85% at the end of it. In addition, I convinced those in charge of the dorm events to purchase compostable eating-ware instead of the usual plastic one; despite the higher costs and the additional effort of taking the compostables to the compost bin, this measure was widely adopted and has also led to an increase of composting by the residents.

The other notable success is the (imminent) introduction of motion sensors in all the dorm's common rooms in order to save on electricity cost when they are not in use. This will be done in collaboration with the MIT Energy Initiative within the next couple of weeks, and there are plans to couple it with outreach efforts to residents in order to reduce electricity use in the rooms as well.

The final noteworthy achievement is the change of status of the position of environment chair from a non-voting to a voting position, reflecting the increase in perceived importance of this kind of work. The environmental committee also expanded from half a dozen to a dozen people, though not all of them active at the same time. The committee was very helpful in carrying out many environmental initiatives.

Now, the failures. The biggest failure is the general level of apathy in residents vis-a-vis environmental issues; if it has decreased, the decrease has been barely noticeable. Perhaps this is not something that can be changed within a year, or perhaps my successor (who I am very lucky to have had on the environmental committee for the last few months of my term) will have better luck with it.

The second failure would certainly be the number of initiatives that have remained on my to-do list. I have certainly done a lot, but not nearly as much as I could have or wanted to. My only consolation is that my successor will be able to implement some of those ideas which I had to leave behind for now. I certainly have a lot to improve in my personal discipline as well - but that will be for another post.

Finally, I feel that I have not done a good enough job of communicating with other people sharing my passion for the environment, especially the environment officers in other graduate dorms on campus. I hope that over time, a closely knit network will emerge that will bring together all these like-minded individuals to share ideas and best practices. Hopefully this will also help them feel less isolated...

I have certainly learned many lessons from my experience; however, seeing how this post is already long enough as it is, I will give myself the incentive to address those in my next post. Stay tuned :)
Saturday, March 28th, 2009
11:14 pm
After the Energy Hour, the Energy Year!
As I usually say at the beginning of a new post, it has been a while since the last time I wrote anything :) Today I plan to talk about three things: compact fluorescent lights, organic food (again), and the Energy Hour.

The first topic is a simple one: compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). According to the "Green Book", this significantly reduces the amount of energy used for lighting, and also saves money (something I don't care that much about, but it certainly doesn't hurt). I am happy to say that I finally replaced all my lightbulbs by compact fluorescent ones yesterday. I got the GE lightbulbs, with an output equivalent to 100 watts (the highest available, since I also want to preserve my eyesight as long as possible). They are available at both La Verde's (MIT Student center) as well as Economy Hardware, among other stores :)

This article in the New York Times discusses some of the limitations of CFLs; despite the concerns about mercury level and actual longevity, I believe that CFLs are the way of the future - sure, they require some more work to reach the strictest standards yet stay affordable, but doesn't every new technology?

Now, as promised, I am going to come back to some issues surrounding organic food. There are reasonable doubts about scalability (can we produce enough organic food to feed the continent?), the benefits for the environment (especially because a lot of organic food leaves a big carbon footprint due to being transported from far away), and the health benefits. The following three articles (all from the New York Times) shed some light on these questions: Article 1, Article 2, and Article 3. I highly recommend reading them, but for those of you who are too busy to do so, here's a summary. Article 1 talks about the idea of "traceability" - the ability to pinpoint the exact farm (and farmer) that was responsible for producing the organic product you are consuming. This new trend aims to reconnect farmers and buyers, as well as serve as an additional "quality control". Article 2 is about healthy eating habits and their independence of the kind of food that is consumed (organic vs. non-organic). Finally, Article 3 describes the recent initiatives, both at the government level as well as at the corporate level, related to promoting organic agriculture. I feel that NYT provides a reasonably diversified coverage of this (and many other issues), so I recommend subscribing to their website (which is free!).

The last topic I am going to touch on is energy conservation. I am writing this right after the yearly Earth Hour (which took place from 8:30 to 9:30 PM, and was a global act of solidarity in the fight against global warming). I was pleasantly surprised to see the majority of our neighbors' windows (I am currently in Montreal) go dark during that period. However, there was still some rather vehement discussion about the existence of global warming on the Facebook page for the event (type Earth Hour on Facebook to find it); while I definitely enjoy a good discussion on such an important topic, the arguments offered by the skeptics were quite misinformed and unconvincing (e.g. "Well, we humans don't know much, so how can we be sure that this is for real?"). That said, although symbolic gestures are important, one hour is not enough to make a difference - what we really need is to always keep energy consumption in mind in our daily lives. [I make a similar argument about Valentine's Day, by the way.]

So, here are some concrete things I plan to do in the next year in order to reduce energy consumption and increase efficiency in my life and the life of those around me. I will educate myself on ways of cutting energy use (such as replacing lightbulbs, turning off electronic devices when not in use, and using solar power), and then help educate others by writing in my blog and also talking about it to the residents of my dorm (if everything goes well, I will become its Environmental Chair next year). I will also learn more about renewable energy sources (the recent documentary "Energy Crossroads" is a good start), and try to switch to those to the extent possible. Finally, I will learn about how energy is related to other environmental issues. In this way, next year will truly become the "Energy Year" :)
Wednesday, January 21st, 2009
11:41 pm
Dear readers,

I must apologize for not having written anything for such a long time. I have been thinking a lot, and did not want to write anything before I could formulate my thoughts in a clear way. But I finally realized that they will be refined as I write them down, and hopefully your comments will also help me bring more clarity to what is now a very disorganized state of mind.

Before I go on, let me start with the good news: in my last post, I wrote about my plans to start composting; well, this week I finally acted on it, and dedicated a coffee container (the coffee was left over from a previous roommate - I don't drink coffee myself) to collect the compostable part of my trash. Once it gets full, I will take it down to the composting bin, and start again :)

Another bit of good news has been my discovery of the Harvest Coop just a five-minute bike ride away from my dorm. This is a store that specializes not only on organic groceries, but also on local produce and products, and many of the items on sale there are both organic and local! I was a little bit taken aback by some of the prices, but (as I had argued earlier) the positive effect on my conscience seems to make it all worth it. Among the other things that I discovered there was a brand of chocolate that is both organic and fair-trade (previously I had to decide between these two properties, as the store I was shopping at for food did not carry an option combining the two). You can find out more about this chocolate here.

However, my discovery has not been limited to grocery stores. Yesterday, two of my friends had a birthday party at a restaurant/bar called "Craigie on the Main". I was really pleasantly surprised to find out that they made a specific effort to make their food organic and local, and even some of their wine was organic. Granted, the prices were not the most affordable, but they were not unreasonable either. I should also mention that I have spoken to several people in the past few weeks who disputed the benefit of organic products to the environment. Whether or not their arguments have a basis I need to investigate this question a little bit further. I do believe, however, that as the organic industry grows, more stringent standards will be put into place for organic certification, whether through self-regulation or government regulation.

And, indeed, it is the people that I have spoken to in the past few weeks that have perhaps been the biggest source of joy in my life. Some of them were supportive of my efforts, others a bit more (constructively) critical. Let me summarize the most important of my interactions here.

I was very fortunate to attend the screening of a documentary called "King Corn" recently, and I met someone from the Working Group on Recycling (WGR), that I have since decided to join. The WGR works primarily with faculty and staff, but also other members of the departments at MIT, to educate them about recycling and broader environmental issues and to implement new measures. Like the other university down the street, MIT has also decided to implement the so-called "single-stream recycling" starting sometime this year (pilot projects are currently underway). I am very excited that it will become much easier to recycle now, which, I hope, will stimulate more of the members of our community to recycle whatever can be recycled instead of throwing it out. I have learned quite a few things about recycling, but I will leave those for a later post.

I was also very fortunate to attend the screening of another documentary, "Energy Crossroads", at our dorm, where I met the dorm's environmental chair (a position on the dorm student council whose responsibilities span the whole spectrum of environmental initiatives). We had a great post-movie discussion, and I believe that there is a lot of potential synergies for having more environmental initiatives at the dorm level.

Of course, not all people I talk to are like-minded. Some of my close friends have already pointed out that I was becoming a little bit more aggressive than usual in trying to convince them to start changing their own lives "for the greener". Others pointed out the need to "pick my battles" (I am still sorting that one out, hopefully I'll address it in one of my future posts). Last but not least, I have received both support and constructive criticism from a very special person whom I shall not name. I am very grateful for both, because feedback is crucial in the kind of initiatives that I undertake; my hope is that nobody remains indifferent to them!

I haven't said a third of what I had planned, but that's my punishment for not having written for so long; I am hoping (although I know better than to make promises) to keep writing on a more regular basis from now on. But please comment a lot, and let me know if there is anything specific you would like me to address. As much as I like to tell myself that whether or not anyone reads what I write is secondary, I am always happy to see what kind of responses I get!
Tuesday, November 25th, 2008
11:13 pm
Home sweet home
Wow, it's been over a week since I've posted anything - that's not a good sign :) On the plus side, I did accomplish a lot of things in other areas of my life, and now I will be able to focus on "greening" it a little bit more than usual.

Before going on, I will briefly summarize my results from trying to change my paper consumption patterns, especially in the area of money. I have opted out of receiving direct mail at home, and also took the opportunity to opt out of getting marketing calls at home. I changed my phone service provider (more details about that later), and chosen not to receive any more paper bills. I also closed my account at a bank that insisted on printing out receipts every time I withdrew money from the ATM, but kept my account with the MIT Federal Credit Union which is flexible in that matter. Of course, the receipts were not the only reason to close the account - I was also not satisfied with several other features - but they provided the extra motivation I needed to act. Finally, I have completely switched to online credit card statements for the one credit card I still own. The one thing I did not manage to do was to opt out of receiving paycheck stubs by mail (the money gets directly deposited into my account) - apparently, it is my employer's policy that pay stubs need to be sent to the employees, and can neither be turned down nor even picked up.

And now, the things I have been working on in the past week (without writing about them): they are from chapter 1 of "The Green Book" called "Home". This is one reason for the title of my post, the other one being that I am spending most of this week home with my parents (thanks to the US Thanksgiving holiday), and will try to see whether I can make any changes there as well.

As usual, I am only listing suggestions that are relevant to my situation, and performing my own analysis; whether or not these would work for you is really up to you to decide!

For the "Kitchen" subsection, which I worked on last week, the suggestions were as follows:
1. compost (keep kitchen scraps from fruits, vegetables, and coffee grounds in a composting bin)
2. food waste (use perishable ingredients before they spoil, measure carefully, save leftovers)
3. microwave (keep microwave clean to maximize its energy efficiency)
4. refrigerator (keep the refrigerator door closed)
5. storage containers (store food in glass or porcelain containers instead of using plastic)
6. trash bags (use leftover paper or plastic bags as liners for the trash can)
7. water filters (install water filters on the faucets instead of buying bottled water)

Out of these, 1 was the most troublesome. I know very little about composting, and would much rather avoid the hassle - but I am also aware that I am wasting a lot of good resources by doing that. Luckily, we have a large composting bin in our dorm; all I need to do is separate the compostable parts of my trash, and then take it downstairs to be composted. I have not yet started doing this, but will give it a try as soon as I return from my break. By the way, I have recently heard a presentation about an absolutely mind-blowing project on zero-waste management; you can find the details here. Maybe, just maybe, I will one day get trained in doing this sort of thing!

I had already been doing 2 (sometimes taking the risk of eating recently, or even not so recently expired food items rather than discarding them) and 5 (the reason behind 5 is actually that chemicals can transfer from plastic to food to body and may cause health risks, although hard evidence for the health risks is difficult to find). Instead of 6, I have been trying to reuse my plastic bags for packaging (and packing) in the past, because our trash bags get automatically replaced by the dorm maintenance people. I have also started making a conscious effort to avoid taking plastic bags at the grocery stores - some of them have reusable environmentally-friendly cloth alternatives, and I now bring my backpack for carrying groceries to those that do not. As a result, my plastic bag "collection" has stabilized at its current size, rather than continuously growing.

I have made an effort to clean up my microwave (which has become somewhat dirty over the years that I've had it), although I did not try measuring the improvement in energy efficiency. It is definitely more pleasing to the eye now that it's clean :) For the refrigerator door, I have also started limiting myself to two uses per meal: one to take all the things I need out of the fridge, and one to put them back in. This requires foreseeing what will be consumed during the meal, and may not be possible when I have visitors (especially since I tend to take more and more things out of the fridge as the meal goes on, as those who have visited me have noticed). However, even then I try to limit myself to opening the door no more than three times per meal.

This takes care of 3 and 4, and leaves us with 7. It turns out that the tap water in Cambridge is sufficiently clean and a filter is not necessary to purify it. I used to consume a lot of bottled water, but I have since decided to use only tap water (which I boil in a kettle if necessary). I do occasionally use bottled water when it is given for free at a seminar that I am attending, but even then I prefer carrying my mug around and using that instead.

That's it for today, stay tuned for more subsections and also the results of my experiments at home (or, more precisely, at my parents' home)!
Monday, November 17th, 2008
11:43 pm
A brief post
One of the best "green tips" I've seen so far was the following one: get enough sleep! Here is the explanation: If you get enough sleep (which usually means sleeping more), you will consume less energy, both in terms of electricity usage and food intake. And of course, the benefits to your health are invaluable! So I am going to follow this advice and call it a day - although I hate to break my promise of posting my plan for the week tonight, I really do need to get enough sleep because I have an important day tomorrow. And if you're reading this late at night, I would suggest you do the same :)
Sunday, November 16th, 2008
11:58 pm
Finally, a post!
Dear readers,

I would like to thank those of you who have expressed your impatience to read the next installment of my journal. I have been rather busy for several reasons - the US elections (in which, though I was not participating, I helped monitor the vote counting process with a non-partisan NGO, Black Box Voting ), a new research project (this one deals with the malaria genome, and I am REALLY excited about it), and last, but not least, an unusually eventful personal life :) But I have always had my journal in the back of my mind, and I am happy to be writing again (although the timing for doing so is not ideal). The title of today's post is a variation on "Finally, a plot!" - allegedly ordered by an unsatisfied writer to be written on his tombstone...

Before I continue, I would like to make a couple of general comments. First, I am very happy about the results of the US elections. While I did not have a strong sympathy for either of the candidates, partly due to my unwillingness to learn more about them, I do think that Barack Obama's much stronger commitment to environmental issues really made the difference for me. I do hope that the opportunity to make a change on this front will indeed materialize into real change. The second comment is that, as a rule, I will avoid doing "negative publicity" on my blog. That is to say, I will commend those (people, companies, organizations) who do good things for the environment, but I will never explicitly mention the name of those who do not. In some cases (like the elections comment above) that will be a purely formal omission, but in others, it will actually be a significant one. The reason for doing that is because I believe in the maxim "Hate the sin, not the sinner" (found in the Bible, among other sources). Any entity that has made mistakes in the past can always make amendments, and I do not make myself the judge of "bad behavior" precisely because I have hope that such amendments will be made. If you find it strange that I do not mention the "offenders" in my blog, now you at least know why.

And now, it is time to make good on a promise I have made last time: to tell you about the implementation of my simple steps to make my life more environmentally friendly in a specific area. This time, it was everything dealing with money (and paper consumption in general). I am happy to report that I have implemented all the changes I mentioned last time, and it was a fairly painless thing to do. In addition, as I will describe below, these changes brought about other changes by a chain reaction, so that other areas of my life have been improved as well.

First of all, I removed myself from all the direct marketing lists, at a cost of only $1. I did so by going to the Mail Preference Service and filling out 4 simple forms: one for credit card reports, one for catalogs, one for journals and magazines, and one for other direct marketing. From now on, I will no longer receive any unsolicited mail in my inbox, which will not only save a lot of trees from being used for paper, but also will save me time in opening the offers and taking them to recycling!

While I was at it, I've decided to examine the other sources of mail in my inbox. I receive monthly statements telling me how much I have earned - since the money is directly deposited into my bank account, I believe I could dispense with that (and I will try to do so tomorrow). In addition, my MIT Federal Credit Union credit card account is managed both online and via paper statements (my bank accounts are already paperless) - which is also superfluous. My phone bill also comes both in paper and electronic form - but I actually decided (for a different reason) that I no longer needed to receive service at my home phone, so I've canceled that. I will continue to monitor my inbox, but for now it seems like I've managed to significantly decrease the volume of paper mail that I receive.

The second thing was ATM receipts. I do not get any from MIT FCU, but I do automatically get one every time I withdraw money from my account at the other bank I am a member of. The main advantage of the other bank was that of convenience - it has ATMs in many locations around Boston and the US, while MIT FCU's ATMs are only located on MIT campus. However, there were several other disadvantages, besides the ATM receipts. Every time I withdrew more money than I had in my checking account (but less than I had in my combined checking and savings account), I had to pay a $10 transfer fee (which was not the case with MIT FCU). And furthermore, I got a lot of marketing calls offering me various products and services in addition to the ones I currently have; and that started to get unpleasant lately. For all these reasons, I've decided to simplify my life and only keep my MIT FCU account. As for ATMs, most places accept debit or credit cards nowadays, and MIT FCU actually allows its members two free withdrawals from other banks' ATMs per month. So with just a little bit of planning, I will be perfectly fine!

One last thing worth mentioning is that the excess of marketing calls I have been receiving led me to look for a way out. It turned out to be quite easy! All I needed to do was to visit the Do Not Call Registry , and after five minutes I was removed from all telemarketers' lists. I am actually quite happy with this chain reaction, as I am now going to be less likely to be disturbed when working, as well as protect the environment!

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, in which I discuss the next area of my life I will try changing!
Monday, October 27th, 2008
11:46 pm
A different perspective on money
After venturing into the realm of economics yesterday, I would like to start today's post by making one additional point. Although, as the quote goes, "in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice", the one-dimensional view of utility adopted in economics may be in part responsible for the one-dimensional evaluation of a company's performance, namely, how much profit it makes. Hypothetically, seeking to maximize not the profit (a one-dimensional measure), but a vector only one of whose components is the profit could lead to a more inclusive account of a company's performance. But right now, let me look at money in the concrete sense of the term, and consider the environmental impact that its use in our daily life has.

Here are some of the simple things that "The Green Book" recommends in chapter 10 (note that since I am currently not investing or buying stocks, I am omitting all recommendations related to these):

1. Checks: Use electronic checks instead of paper checks.
2. Electronic payments: Pay your bills electronically.
3. Electronic tax refund: Take advantage of getting your money back electronically from the IRS.
4. Online banking: Receive your bills, make payments, and check your account balance online.
5. Paperless accounting: Try reconciling your bills with software, not a paper check register.
6. Tax forms: Get your tax forms online. It's simpler, and you can file faster.
7. Withdrawals/deposits: Don't tale a slip. Use an ATM rather than a bank teller.

1, 2, 4, 5 and 7 are the changes I am going to adopt this week. If they turn out to be sensible according to the scheme outlined in my earlier posts, I will adopt them in the future. I have already largely converted my banking to online banking, but I still use checks from time to time. I often forget to tell the teller to hold the receipt when I go to the bank, and some ATMs insist on printing out a receipt even when I prefer not to have one. And there are definitely bills that I handle on paper, such as my phone bill. I will hold off on 3 and 6 until tax season, and I am actually not so sure 6 is a great idea - I still feel that it may be advantageous to have a record of your income tax in paper form. But I will come back to these sometime in April (assuming I actually file my taxes on time, which was not the case last year).

I will report on the effects and the results of adopting these changes at the end of the week. Oh, and for those not living in the US, the IRS is the Internal Revenue Service.
Sunday, October 26th, 2008
11:53 pm
The world makes money go round
Well, it looks like I am going to discuss economics sooner than I thought. I need to clarify what it means for me to say that a change I am adopting is financially sound, because it is very easy to lead myself and others into confusion if I do not.

Although I have only had one formal post-secondary course in economics, and that was a game theory class, I believe I do have a good "intuitive" understanding of it. Granted, if a person who has never studied mathematics claimed to "intuitively" understand it, I would probably not take them very seriously, but I believe that a lot of economics is largely grounded in common sense, which we all share to some extent. The reason for this disclaimer is that I am about to make a criticism of economic theory which may have been addressed by researchers, or even dismissed as irrelevant, but which I believe is important and even at some level fundamental.

As far as my (limited) understanding goes, economic theory models humans as a rational being (an assumption which may be questioned in and of itself, but that is not my goal - John Ralston Saul does a better job with that than I ever could), and therefore, one that attempts to maximize their utility function (which quantifies the benefit derived from an outcome). So far so good. But now, the utility function for any specific outcome is a single real number, which allows us to compare any two outcomes and say which one is better; in mathematical lingo, we have a total order on the set of all outcomes. What I would argue, though, is that there may be different kinds of benefit that need to be considered for each outcome, and that the utility function should be a collection of several numbers (vector-valued rather than scalar-valued). In that case, there may be pairs of outcomes that cannot be compared; mathematically, we do not have a total order on the set of all outcomes, but only a partial order.

For instance, consider a simple example from computer games (which I haven't played since primary school, but have watched many of my friends play). Suppose for simplicity that you have two resources, lives and points. Suppose you are deciding whether to undertake a maneuver that will result in getting 100 extra points at the expense of 1 life. If you only have 2 lives until the end of the game (which is several levels away), but lots of points, it would be wise to refrain from the maneuver; on the other hand, if you are at the last level and 50 points away from your personal record, then this is a good idea regardless of how many lives you have.

What this example illustrates is that the 2 outcomes (outcome 1: forgo the maneuver; outcome 2: go for the maneuver) are not necessarily comparable; which one is better depends on where you are. Granted, this is a somewhat contrived example, but the point I am trying to make is that this happens to us a lot in everyday life, and more than one decision could be "a best one" (in a partial order, there could be several maximal elements). Ideally, we would like to benefit on all levels (get extra lives AND extra points in the computer game; be environmentally friendly, healthy AND save money in real life). However, when that is not possible, we (as a rational player) need to choose an outcome which is no worse than any other outcome (as opposed to better than all other outcomes). And which one we choose could depend on many factors, such as previous history (how many lives/points we had in the computer game), our values, our beliefs...

By now, you probably see where I am going with this argument. In every change that I attempt to implement, I will evaluate the costs and benefits in terms of all the factors I mentioned: environmental impact, morality, health, comfort, and economics. But it will not always possible to benefit on all levels; if several options are available, I will choose the one that I like best (and try to give reasons for it, though these reasons may be more or less rational). And when you are making the decision for yourself, you should also choose the one that you like best, which is quite likely to be different from the one I like.

As an example: switching to organic food was definitely beneficial in terms of environmental impact (though some people have questioned that, and I will come back to this point later), morality (it felt good for me to be able to do something for the environment by making a simple change in my consumption pattern) and health (the effect was at least neutral; though some claim organic food is healthier than non-organic food, this is not 100% clear to me). It was marginally disadvantageous in terms of comfort (I now need to spend more time shopping for food because it's not always easy to find the organic products as there tends to be fewer of them), and clearly disadvantageous economically (as the cost of organic products is currently between 1.1 and 2 times higher than the comparable non-organic ones). So both switching and not switching were "best" decisions; the reason I chose to switch was because in my situation, spending an extra hour shopping and an extra 100 to 200 dollars on food per month was easier than having to live with the knowledge that I am (potentially) unnecessarily harming the environment when I could avoid it. But if, say, I had been on a very tight budget (like some of the people reading this may be), the economic factor would (and should) take the upper hand!

As an afterthought, now, two months after I switched, I spend almost the same amount of time shopping for food as before, and I have been able to make up for the extra expenditure by going to restaurants less often and by cooking for myself more often. I doubt it could have worked out that way if I had made the opposite decision. So it seems that, after considering things on a longer-term perspective, my decision was the only best one, even though it wasn't originally!
Saturday, October 25th, 2008
11:47 pm
Had we but world enough and time...
Well, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that my research is starting to become interesting again; the bad news is that I did not have the time to compute my carbon footprint as I had originally planned to do today. But instead, I will provide a list of good reading materials (or, at least, materials that I have enjoyed reading) on the subject of the environment.

First and foremost, you must see the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" if you have not already! It should be available on DVD, and I am almost sure (too lazy to check) you can get it on NetFlix.

Secondly, a few books that I found really useful (in fact, I will be using some of them to guide my exploration of the ways in which I can make my life greener):
1) "the green book" (not to be confused with "Het groene boekje", a reference on Dutch grammar) - speaking of Dutch, for those of you who wondered where my username comes from, it simply means "green star" in Dutch; I originally chose it to represent my dedication to the international language Esperanto, which has the green star as its symbol, but it seems fitting enough even now.
2) "Fifty simple things you can do to change the earth" - the 2008 edition is highly recommended!
3) "Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal" - a little bit less focused on the individual and a bit more policy-oriented, but nevertheless a very interesting book to read

Finally, a few websites (in addition to the calculator I referenced yesterday):
1) Creating a greener home
2) Environmentally-friendly travel
3) Environmental funerals(!)
4) Environmentalism (Wikipedia)
5) Deep ecology (Wikipedia)

The last one of these is about a philosophy that I do not necessarily endorse (I prefer not to endorse any fixed philosophy, in fact), but that is nevertheless interesting to think about.

Oh, and regarding the comment on the high cost of organic food (thank you for that!), I plan to address the question of the economics of an environmentally friendly life sometime next week!
Friday, October 24th, 2008
11:38 pm
Who am I, and where am I coming from?
I decided to make the title of today's post end with a question mark, instead of an exclamation mark like the previous two. I am only going to provide a partial answer to both questions this time, but these answers will hopefully give you some context.

I am an MIT graduate student in course 18 (aka Mathematics for the non-initiated). I've been here for 2 years. I live in the one of the newest dorms, known as S&P; I have a suite-mate (i.e. we each have our own room, but share the kitchen and the bathroom). All utilities (electricity, water, heat and Internet) are included in our rent. There is a recycling bin just outside our door, and both garbage and recycling are picked up daily (except on weekends). I do not own a car (that would be quite useless in Boston anyways), and I seldom take the airplane; most of my regular trips to Montreal (my previous city) are either by bus or by sharing a ride.

Although I have had some interest in environmental issues since my early years (a TV interview from the mid-1990s shows me give a highly improbable answer - "Ecology" - to the question "What's your favorite subject?"), I only starting becoming conscious of the impact an individual can have on the environment in the past 4-5 years. I have only been committed to making a difference in my own life for the last year or so, and until now it has never been a highly-prioritized activity in my already busy life. However, I am finally getting to where I am now because of both the mounting tension between my convictions and my lifestyle as well as the desire to act before it is too late.

Let me enumerate some changes that I have already implemented in my everyday life. None of those has been particularly difficult or time-consuming, and I would be happy to advise anyone who would like to make similar changes in their own life. Of course, the real question is what more can (and must) be done, and this is what I will be addressing in all my upcoming posts.

1) Transportation. After largely relying on walking and the Boston public transportation system in my first year at MIT, I now own a commuter bike that I use to get around campus and the city. I do occasionally take the M2 shuttle to get to the Harvard Medical School campus, and I also have a Charlie card for the rare occasions on which I use the Boston public transportation.
2) Paper consumption. I use both sides of the paper to write on, and any one-sided paper that I produce gets used for my printing needs (or as scrap paper). I don't purchase any printer paper outside of that. I recycle all the paper that I no longer need and that is "full" on both sides.
3) Electricity use. I have (finally) trained myself to turn off the light whenever I leave the room, and I also turn off my laptop whenever I am about to leave for 1 hour or more (otherwise I set it to Standby mode). I try not to use the thermostat whenever possible, instead letting my body adapt to the temperature (provided it is not extreme) and opening the window if needed.
4) Food. I have recently completed the switch to organic food (something which I will definitely come back to in a later post), and I have stopped wasting food by buying more than I would need as I used to do in my first year here. I am trying to become vegetarian, but as I am not ready to complete the change at once, I am currently consuming meat once every 4 or 5 days. I also carry my own cup around, which allows me to avoid using plastic cups almost entirely. I mostly cook for myself, although I will usually eat at a restaurant one or two meals every week.
5) Water use. I drink water from the tap (no more bottled water). I also carry water with me in a plastic bottle, although I should really switch to a metal one. I have a glass that I use to pour water in for brushing my teeth, and I also try to wash fruits and vegetables by filling a bowl with water rather than letting water run. I boil water in a kettle to make tea from leaves.

There are of course many other factors to be considered, but this is a good overview. I wanted to provide my estimated carbon footprint, but the calculator at Alcoa is currently not available, so I'll probably do it tomorrow.
Thursday, October 23rd, 2008
11:39 pm
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!
Well, I am glad to be keeping my promise and adding another post to my journal. Today I will continue to explain what I would like to achieve through my series of (hopefully regular) posts. But first I would like to make a digression (or, as my friend Ruben would call it, open brackets).

You have probably heard the expression that gave the title to today's post many times. I believe it comes from ancient China (so "mile" should really be replaced by "li", an ancient Chinese unit of distance). I definitely have had my share of exposure to it, but I only began to understand it fully this year. I read Gandhi's autobiography called "My experiments with truth" (a must-read). One thing of many that struck me is how, throughout his life, he sought to improve himself in all ways possible. Now, my own record of "self-improvement" has been shaky at best, and I now think I understand why. I have usually tried to change things by a sudden act of willpower, rather than gradually approaching my goal.

For instance, my lifelong battle with lateness had so far led to no appreciable result, as I constantly kept telling myself "all right, today is the day that you will stop being late all the time". I would keep it up for a few days, but inevitably fall victim to my old habit and despair, just to restart the vicious cycle some time later. I had almost given up and even decided to accept the fact that I am late "by nature". But my approach has now changed, and I am starting to see results already - I am now approaching this problem with a plan that lets me keep track of the small improvements I make every day. Leave 5 minutes early for class; don't plan things one right after the other unless it cannot be avoided; plan to arrive 5 minutes early to account for unforeseen circumstances. As a result, I can proudly say that I have reduced the number of late arrivals by over 50% this year, and I will continue working on it until I get as close as I can to being a punctual person - of course, since that's no fun, I'll probably still be late once in a while just for the heck of it, but that's a different story :)

Another example is the 6-month long marathon training I just went through. Another expression I had often heard was "it's not a sprint, it's a marathon" - well, the marathon is much more than just a race, it is also a very long process of preparation, both physical and mental. Although some people may be able to run a marathon with little preparation, common mortals like myself do need to take a marathon very seriously. I was running to raise money for a charity called Asha for education, in whose cause I strongly believe (by the way, I donations are still being accepted until this Sunday; just click on Asha), and that certainly helped my motivation. In the end of all this training, I was able to successfully complete my first marathon ever, in Lowell, this past Sunday. If someone told me last September that I would be able to one day run a marathon, I would not have believed them - but now, it has happened. So yay for all the early morning runs, the long runs on weekends, the Clif shots, and my wonderful teammates - but most of all, for persistence and slow, gradual improvement which was the only way I could achieve it!

So what does this all have to do with protecting the environment? Well, quite a lot, in fact. My approach will not be to make radical changes once and for all; instead, each week I will try to implement 1 or 2 simple changes to my lifestyle that are environmentally friendly (main criterion) as well as sound from the point of view of morality, health, comfort, and last, but not least, economics (i.e. my budget). And I will document each of those changes in my journal!

But before you decide to go somewhere, it is important to know where you are. This is why I am going to attempt an evaluation of the degree of "greenness" of my current lifestyle... tomorrow!
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