Skip to content →

the fertile paradox Posts

Catch-22 or Progress?

I haven’t gotten a chance to mention the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC), and I still can’t even choose words to express my pleasure in the fact that there are fair, democratic elections taking place all across Africa.

Despite the fighting between incumbent Joseph Kabila’s and Jean-Pierre Bemba’s supporters, the fact that there is a runoff to look forward to in the first place is a tremendous accomplishment.

I have always admired Joseph Kabila and his desire to see his country end her civil wars. Even more, I have admired his personal sacrifices and decision-making in moving his country forward. Although the current fighting indicates there are significant roadblocks in the way of bringing RDC full-circle from military dictatorship to democracy, I am moved by the contrast in his administration relative to the other governments in the region.

I often consider the reckless selfishness of dictators around the world. These dictators could ensure a dynasty for their families if they’d only secure a minimal standard of living for their constituents and demonstrate a modest level of generosity. In an ideal world, the finest gift a leader could pass on to their children would be the goodwill of their citizens.

There are so many directions in which I could take this discussion, but that would take pages and pages of writing. I must say, leaders willing to relinquish personal grip on the fortunes of their countries are needed to forge progress throughout the developing world.

As many of us are tired of hearing, corruption is a popular excuse for why we haven’t made more substantial progress in developing infrastructure and economies in the developing world.

We must eliminate this inadeqate excuse from the lips of western donors and aid coordinators.
I think Kabila is making a step in this direction.

Leave a Comment

bungling boondoggling bumbling bureaucrats! (wait… i want to be one one day, right?)

On this anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I’d like to join Grist magazine and others in pointing out one of the true criminals in this whole deal who have been spared their reasonable share of the blame in this catastrophe: The Army Corps of Engineers.

Let’s begin with a short excerpt from the Grist headline article:

If an unsafe building collapsed and killed 1,000 people, we wouldn’t blame the building’s manager, even if he bungled his evacuation plan, or its maintenance crew, even if they had shirked their jobs before the disaster, or the rescue squad, even if it was terribly slow to respond. We wouldn’t shrug and blame Mother Nature. And we certainly wouldn’t blame the victims — especially if they had been assured the building was safe. 

We would blame the architects and engineers who produced the unsafe building. And we might ask some tough questions about the way our buildings get produced.

I must say when I was an undergraduate civil engineering student at Howard University, this is what I was taught would happen to me if I ever made a professional mistake that cost lives, much less took an intentionally negligent course of action. While we should not discount the foolishness perpetrated by the government agencies involved in this mess [most notably the offices of the Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans], we must not withhold blame from whom blame is due. The failure of the levees is what caused the deluge of New Orleans. And the failure of the levees falls, among several parties, mostly on its builders and managers: The Corps of Engineers.

Now, I should be fair while ascribing blame there. First off, they have admitted their fault in the matter. Secondly, risk assessment and management, and infrastructure investment and maintenance, assume a time scale of decades. Keeping this in mind, we must understand that this failure was not the result of a one-time decision made by some obscure general at the Corps. It was also not likely the result of a one-time decision made by some misinformed politician. The New Orleans levee failure is the result of decades of poor choices by a complicated network of politicians, engineers, and the environmental consequences of over-development of wetland areas. Don’t believe me? Well, consider this, this, this or just do a Google search for “new orleans levee failure.”

Much more important is the fact that this levee failure represents a legacy of national negligence as far as infrastructure is concerned. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s infrastructure a grade of “D” in its annual report. Now can anyone, engineering student or not, please tell me whether you would have received your undergraduate degree with a 1.0 GPA?

If not, why are we allowing our nation’s infrastructure the liberty of a failing grade?

Leave a Comment

absent vision… languishing people

As I was walking through Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill Barnes and Noble with one of my favorite professors, the one and only William Massey, I was introduced to the phenomenon of mathematics novels, memoirs, theses, and literature that wasn’t academic textbooks or journals. I ended up buying a book with a title I feel resonates with the reason I decided to pursue a PhD in the first place: Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

The other book I bought has more general day-to-day relevance for most Americans. Juan Williams’ new book is one of several books I’ve seen in recent years to critique the notion of victimhood chronically and systematically appealed to by African-American leaders [the others I’ve seen and read are Debra Dickerson’s The End of Blackness and John McWhorter’s Losing the Race]. Dickerson and McWhorter have also written at length about Black American appeals to victimhood. Unfortunately, some who have discussed these books with me accuse these authors of criticizing blacks in front of whites for personal gain… I guess you could say these authors’ arguments might have been lost on the general public.

So, what is victimhood? I should answer this before continuing… Essentially, victimhood is relying on, or encouraging others to rely on, white people and the general powers that be to do for black people what we should be doing for ourselves. Now, that is by no means the official definition, but it describes this notion pretty robustly.

Juan Williams’ book, titled Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America — and What We Can Do About It is so attractive to me because I’ll read pretty much anything that will not allow us as Black Americans to shirk our responsibilities to solidify our families, educate our children, pursue our own economic empowerment, and make our sociopolitical mark on the American and global landscapes. I haven’t read this book yet, but the excerpt I have seen and some of the book’s criticism lead me to believe I will not be disappointed.

The book focuses on the shortcomings of Black leadership, and I believe it’s focus is well-placed. I can still remember the first time I thought our leadership might be slow in understanding that Black demographics are changing (e.g., economically and intellectually more powerful, etc.), and that our needs are less homogeneous. While at Howard, it was at a political forum where a campus group was trying to encourage students to attend the Congressional Black Caucus meeting where I asked what our leaders are doing to change their strategies to deal with the changing needs of Black folk. I remember being surprised I did not receive an acceptable answer. Well, it seems that Juan Williams and Bill Cosby have observed the same things:

Critics often charge Bill Cosby, in his Brown anniversary speech, with beating up on an easy mark: poor black people. Wrong. The critics are the ones who veer off target. Cosby repeatedly aimed his fire at the leaders of today’s popular black culture, which is often not just created by black artists, but marketed and managed by black executives. He was talking about current black political leaders and, most of all, about the civil rights leaders who time and time again send the wrong message to poor black people desperately in need of direction as they try to find their way in a society where being black and poor remains a unique burden to bear.

Cosby’s point is that lost, poor black people have suffered most from not having strong leaders. His charge is that these leaders–cultural and political–misinform, mismanage, and miseducate by refusing to articulate established truths about what it takes to get ahead: strong families, education, and hard work. Every American has reason to ask about the seeming absence of strong black leadership….

It is perhaps most important to point out that our missing leadership subverts the power that we do wield as Black Americans:

Strong black intellects and personalities are leaders in media (Richard Parsons, the head of Time Warner, and Mark Whitaker, editor of Newsweek), securities firms (such as Stanley O’Neal of Merrill Lynch), global corporations (Kenneth Chenault of American Express, Ann Fudge of the public relations firm Young and Rubicam), academic institutions (Ruth Simmons, Kurt Schmoke, Henry Louis Gates, Ben Carson), religious organizations (Floyd Flake, T. D. Jakes), and national politics (Eleanor Holmes Norton, Artur Davis, Barack Obama, and Colin Powell).

We as Black Americans as a group are the wealthiest and most powerful Black people on the planet… An arrogant statement, nonetheless, it is true and we have a tremendous responsibility to the rest of the Black diaspora. How can we fulfill our responsibilities if we are so concerned with what American whites aren’t doing for us?

Leave a Comment

It’s Not Just a Grade! It’s A Place Among the Elite…

I must say, my friend Lydie has brought up a point which I have been considering for some time now. Ever since I was applying to undergraduate programs, the question as to how much of a school’s name you should pay for was on my mind. In one of her recent posts, “To Ivy or not : on name (brand) schools,” she references a recent article “Who Needs Harvard?” which discusses the value of searching out smaller alternatives to the “big names” which may better match the personality, goals, and talent of a young student.

Most of the comments on her blog seem to agree with Lydie that a “brand name” school is absolutely necessary. I, however, beg to differ somewhat on that point. While it is clear that attending a big name school such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and so on will provide its benefits, in today’s changing workplace this benefit is difficult to quantify. Furthermore, the dynamic, incredibly talented, and dramatically larger student pool applying to these schools (relative to, let’s say, the 1960’s or 70’s) makes not only these big name schools highly competitive, but also schools traditionally referred to as “second-tier” or “safeties.” In short, as long as you are a solid student, applying to a reasonably selective college or university, you can rest assured you will not lose much in the quality or prestige of your education, provided you do your research.

Now, let me make it clear that I do not completely disagree with my friends on the issue. Certainly, it is unwise to attend a school that can neither provide an intelectually or culturally challenging environment, nor gurantee a selective admissions process. In a book I am currently reading, this point is made abundantly clear. William Bowen and Derek Bok’s The Shape of The River, demonstrates that school selectivity positively influences both a student’s academic undergraduate performance, chances of applying to and gaining admission to graduate and professional school, and increased earning power.

Given this point, I freqently can be overheard saying that once a threshold of academic selectivity has been surmounted, the most important thing about the undergraduate experience is the quality of life for the student. In the mentioned story, Time magazine seems to agree: [I have added the emphasis.]

College students this spring watched the flameout of Kaavya Viswanathan, the prepackaged Harvard prodigy who published a best seller at 19 and had been exposed as a plagiarist by 20. That’s not the way things are supposed to unfold. College is supposed to be about the Best Four Years of Your Life, “the love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books,” not to mention pizza and football and long, caffeinated nights of debate and confusion and discovery. All that families have to do to succeed, say veterans of the admissions wars, is let go of some old assumptions and allow themselves to be pleasantly surprised by how much has changed on campuses across the country in the past generation. That ability in the end may be the admissions test that matters most. 

Unquestionably, graduate and professional school is a somewhat different story. Certainly, to agree with Lydie, it is an acute socioeconomic issue. The privileges and networks associated with world-class professional education are priceless. Thus, at the graduate level, it is more important to attend a name school (in my opinion). This is because graduate school is about more decisive preparation to become colleagues in a profession, not necessarily about procuring a solid academic base in a subject.

It is precisely this notion which demonstrates how invaluable the undergraduate experience is. Because there is no other academic period of your life where you will be allowed personal and scholastic freedom with only modest penalties for making mistakes, a high premium should be placed on ensuring that one will enjoy their undergraduate years to the utmost.

Leave a Comment

Passion and Purity: Strange Bedfellows in Environmental Journalism

In “They Walk The Line“, top environment reporters talk about journalism vs. activism. Grist Magazine preface the article with the tension between simply reporting facts dispassionately or engaging activism in the face of daunting environmental problems such as global warming, biodiversity loss, and fossil fuel consumption, to name a few. I find it quite interesting as I read about the goals and opinions of several preeminent environmental journalists in the field.

In such a politically charged realm of work as environmental journalism, the average reader can easily be frustrated by what appears as biased reporting—either too far on the side of big business, or too far on the side of environmental fanaticism. On the other hand, an average spectator to the political and economic battles around environmental stewardship may also be perplexed by a journalist’s reluctance to join the fray. Surely these reporters have a personal interest in the outcome of these battles? Shouldn’t they tell me which side I should be on?

To be honest, as an environmental engineer interested in policy, I’ve always thought this is what they were doing. To me, shepherding the passions of readers with environmental sensibilities and interests in the science of such matters was intrinsic to the business of environmental journalism. Today, I have been challenged by Grist Magazine’s article to re-evaluate my vantage point towards the writing.

After reading Felicity Barringer, Michael Grunwald, Elizabeth Kolbert, Andrew Revkin, and Ross Gelbspan’s accounts of their goals, challenges, and career evolutions, I realize that it has not been the writers’ intentions which have directed my impressions of environmental problems, but their skill in covering them. Their anecdotes encourage me to consider that maybe it is a combination of their skill in making mundane science headline news, investigative instincts, and propensity to strictly adhere to the facts of the matter that color my beliefs about the environmental state of the world.

After hearing from them personally (or as personally as reading Grist’s article can allow), I am lead to think that maybe, just maybe, the facts do speak for themselves…

One Comment

Diary of Jay-Z: Water for Life

“Jigga What??!? Jigga Who?!?”

This is what some of the UN administrators must have been saying when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan informed them that they would be working with Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter in the global fight to provide clean drinking water to the almost two billion people who lack consistent access to it.

Carter, Def Jam President and CEO, says: “Most young people are unaware” of the world’s water crisis, but if they knew about the “staggering numbers” of people affected by lack of clean water, they would be moved to act, at United Nations Headquarters in New York on Wednesday. Of course, Annan welcomed the help of the internationally known recording star and MTV President Christina Norman in raising public awareness of water scarcity through a new global initiative.

I’ve not listened to a single Jay-Z track for almost two years now, and my preoccupation with disinfection by-product formation and its related health effects and soccer news to remain too occupied with the flow of hip-hop culture. However, even I must admit that this can only be a boon to those who are seriously concerned with the problems associated with community water supply on much of the planet.

It is refreshing to see that Kofi Annan concurs. Quoting the Environmental News Service:

“The water crisis – like so many issues confronting our world – can only be fully addressed with the creative participation of young people everywhere,” said Annan. “Working with MTV and Jay-Z, all of us at the UN hope this campaign will motivate youth to take action both in their own lives, and in support of broad eco-friendly initiatives.” 

The Jay-Z international concert tour in September is part of an MTV effort to “educate, empower, and involve young people regarding global issues.” I must admit, I’m glad that even MTV is trying to draw young folk into the fray of such a colosally important venue.

I am also thoroughly impressed with Jay-Z. Of course, I thought his highly publicized list of 99 problems included much more trivial issues. Apparently, water is in the 99 while a b$#@* is not…

Leave a Comment


i just saw this last night while i was watching soccer and waiting for my lady to board her early-morning flight to the dominican republic. is an amazing site that allows you to text message directions directly to your mobile phone, or text an address to them while on the move and receive directions texted back to you… unfortunately, since they have not made it to all cities yet, i have not been able to use this service yet… therefore, if anyone is more able to comment on its effectiveness, i would love to hear. as i am in one of the HopStop served cities once per month, this would be an amazing thing to try just for kicks…

Leave a Comment

ethiopia in troubled waters

I am excited to see that the US has sent troops to help in the Ethiopian flood crisis. At times like this, it helps to remember that there is some notion of human compassion in our military despite our current crises…

As an engineering student interested in water resources and environmental stewardship, it is difficult to stomach such disasters as the current flood crisis in Ethiopia. While no country can expect to avoid such disasters altogether, we in wealthy, industrialized countries often forget how fortunate we are to live in countries where the power of water is harnessed. Unfortunately, for poorer countries such as Ethiopia and many others with water whose power has not been tamed, such a necessity for life can often claim the lives of those who may at times also despair for it.

As I have been doing some reading recently about water resources problems, especially in the developing world, I think there are some explanation for these issues. Among a myriad of explanations are found a global lack of technical knowledge necessary to address these problems and an unwillingness to promulgate sustainable water resources and sanitation infrastructure solutions.

I believe these catastrophes demonstrate to us that we as a global community still do not possess the knowledge required to address these concerns. We do not have the expertise to address the sophisticated hydrological and water resources problems that plague much of the planet; the recurring stories of flooding and drought consistently testify to this. While some of these problems may be chalked up to the whims of nature, many of these problems owe to the fact that countries who have the resources to attempt to tackle these problems cannot familiarize themselves with the intricacies of such formidable challenges as are present in areas of the world with highly variable hydrology.

Some of the magnitude of these problems can be linked to the lack of sustainable solutions for water resources and sanitation infrastructure. Some reasons cited for this include widespread corruption and lack of adequate management institutions, investor and community risk aversion, and the substantial investment of time and money required. I think none of these excuses are acceptable, and personally think there is no explanation that can preclude our responsibility to require the development of these resources in places where they are lacking. As far as the prohibitive monetary and temporal costs involved, we cannot afford, as a global community, to be deterred by such daunting challenges. Truly, water infrastructure is a prerequisite to the social and economic development of any culture, yet we in the aid-providing community consistently advocate short-term, small-scale solutions to problems that require full-scale, long-term sustainable approaches to these problems. Corruption and community and investor risk aversion are social issues which have immesurable influence on the difficulty involved in solving water problems, however I am not convinced that these are acceptable reasons to quell our pursuit of the advancement of water infrastructure development.

Leave a Comment