Possessions

I thought I packed my bags for New Zealand with great care. Acquaintances who had lived in Wellington told me it would rain all the time, so I dutifully packed my galoshes, two pairs of cowboy boots, my happy lamp, and optimistically brought a single pair of sandals. Glancing at the temperature climatology the night before I left, I noted that the temperature never seemed to rise above 68F and unpacked all my skirts and shorts, and all my dresses except one. In their place, I put in three fleeces and a rain coat. I topped a bag off with my favorite cookbook, sure that I would be able to cook like a vegetarian Julia Child after my first year of living on my own.

The truth is that it is sunny more than it rains, and I’ve never needed my galoshes. My happy lamp requires American voltage, a detail I failed to ponder before jetting across the Pacific. I have acquired five dresses, four skirts, and two pairs of shorts, and have burned through three pairs of ballet flats. My yoga mat that I bought here has been of more use to me than my three fleeces, and I cannot remember what I was thinking when I packed my yak-traks. I still cook the same way I did when I left, although I’ve learned how to make some very unhealthy Kiwi desserts.

Now I find myself pondering how to get these things back to Boulder with me, and then how to get them to Cambridge by August. How tempting to leave it all here, and return with only a backpack. But then I remember that my trust hiking boots never give me blisters, and I love the ‘clack’ of my cowboy boots on the pavement, and my happy lamp will keep me going through the Cambridge winter. The comforter and sleeping bag that I bought here keep me warm, and my rain jacket keeps me dry.

And so I know that I will step off the plane in Los Angeles with the same giant green suitcase that came with me on the first leg of my trip, and a magenta backpack that replaced its fraying predecessor. I’ll feel that I have too much to carry, but I won’t know what to leave.

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Sketches of Aro Valley

I.
He sits on a folding chair that is too small,
and watches, motionless, as businessmen and techies walk past;
their attire broadcasts their affiliation.
He wears a gray knit sweater, loose around his thin frame,
and glasses that are perfect for peering over as he surveys his kingdom
full of “one of everything”; items that are “unique and affordable.”
He observes a curvaceous woman as she struggles to maneuver
between carefully yet precariously piled books, themselves supporting
enormous film posters concealing piles of abandoned appliances.
He says they all still work, and always guarantees a full refund if your purchase
is not to your liking.
This seems a generous offer from a junk shop. But I don’t think
he sees the same shop as I do, filled with random pieces.
He has constructed an empire of objects.

II.
Like a parade of ants bearing too much of a load,
the young students cradle 12 packs of cheap beer
in their skinny arms, propelled forward by skinny legs in skinny jeans.
The uphill journey is long.

III.
The sun only warms one side of the street,
so I find myself there
like a cat moving lazily through the day.
Black coffee in white ceramic
resting on roughly hewn wood.
The smell of freshly baked bread.
There is warmth in the winter sun.


First Landing

Today is the one-month mark until I leave New Zealand. Along the lines of the project Andrea and I started during our last month at Harvard of writing poetry together every day, I wanted to reflect on my time here through writing. Here is the first of (hopefully) many posts about scenes of New Zealand.

Although the flight across the Pacific, from Los Angeles to Auckland, is over 12 hours long, the requisite jetlag is essentially non-existant. The journey always begins after dark on the eastern side of the ocean, and ends as dawn breaks on the small island that is New Zealand. If you are lucky enough to sleep through the flight, you will wake up after a night’s sleep to find a friendly Air New Zealand flight attendant serving you breakfast and to realize that you have lost a day of your life when the plane flew smoothly across the international date line. I, for one, have never been so lucky to fall asleep on planes, so instead found myself watching the latest Pixar creation and a chick-flick that I had seen once before. My fragile emotional state, induced not by leaving home but by an almost-cancelled flight and a visa debacle, prevented me from subjecting myself to anything but fluff in my film choices. After exhausting those options, I watched the small image of our plane slowly passing above the ocean bathymetry, no land in sight, and the date changed from July 4 to July 6 in less than a blink. A kind man directed me toward a short tourist video about Wellington, my new home about which I knew almost nothing, which strangely featured a blond American girl spending money with abandon at stores and restaurants that I, to this day, associate with those first digital glimpses of this town. Her long hair and stylish clothes were wind-blown.

The exit from a long international flight can best be described as a stumble, and in this state I entered New Zealand. The biosecurity signs loomed from above, so I nervously checked my bags again and again to ensure that I had not brought an offending piece of hand fruit into the country without knowing it. I was surprised to find that both hiking boots and running shoes were also a risk; in order to have them cleaned, I had to extract them from my carefully packed suitcase under the watchful eyes of an older gentleman, part of the intimidating biosecurity team. Of course the boots were on the bottom. Under every pair of underwear I brought. On the plus side, my boots left the airport cleaner than they ever will be again.

For being the biggest city in New Zealand, the Auckland airport is surprisingly small. After a short walk through the early morning air between the domestic and the international terminal, I found my saving grace in the first coffee shop I saw. I ordered an americano, and the greasiest breakfast option I saw behind the counter. The woman smiled, and asked me if I meant a long black. So began a very pleasurable education in New Zealand coffee terms, where an espresso is a short black, an americano a long black, and a better version of the latte is found in the flat white. I took a picture of my first meal in New Zealand. It was delicious.

I’ve been to many airports here since my first experience in Auckland: Wellington, Christchurch, Queenstown, Nelson, Auckland again. They all seem familiar now, in their smallness and their ease. I have not thought back on my first landing in Auckland before now, and it’s strange to think how much was unknown then. At least my coffee education began early, so I could order like I knew what I was doing from the beginning.


Landscape view

I seem to be very good at starting blogs, and forgetting about them, and then deciding to start them again. Perhaps I should work on being worse at this particular habit, and better at actually blogging. While I work on this particular avenue of self-improvement, here is a New Zealand landscape from my trip through the Catlins in January.

I would, as a side note, highly recommend this remote corner of New Zealand if you find yourself in the country. The region treats you to beaches, caves, penguins, forest, and sea lions who lounge around in the sand without moving until they decide to awkwardly flip sand into the air in an attempt to cover themselves – and is a bit less tourist-heavy than your average beautiful New Zealand location.


The best of: Climate Forum

My thoughts on some of the best ideas and proposals to come out of the Climate Forum, both big and small:

  • From a measurement perspective, it is time to stop viewing all greenhouse gases in the framework of “CO2 equivalent.” Methane, for instance, has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere but is more potent for its duration of occupation. This behavior does not translate well to the behavior of CO2, which is less potent but longer lived, and probably needs to be viewed differently when we consider our warming trajectory.
  • I asked Martin Manning about how to communicate the idea that uncertainty in climate science does not translate to “We don’t need to worry about it,” and he drew me the following sketch (reproduced by me, of course, will minimal mathematical accuracy)


    The idea is that, if we view risk as the product of cost and likelihood, where cost can be thought of either financially or otherwise, the peak in risk is not over the peak in likelihood, but rather shifted to the right. This of course assumes that cost will increase with greater warming, and for some areas, this may not be true – increased agricultural production is probably the best potential example, but more research needs to be done in this field.

  • I mentioned most of the ideas about communicating climate science in my previous post, but I’ll just reiterate the importance of framing climate change within existing value systems, emphasized by Erik Conway.
  • With regards to framing, there was discussion of discussing a carbon tax as a waste disposal fee, which fits neatly into the waste disposal fees we already pay for disposing of rubbish.
  • Brian Fallow recommended that scientists, before talking to the press, try to write down what they would like to have the public hear in 400 words or one spoken minute – and then tailor what you express to a reporter with those constraints in mind.
  • A bit impractical, but I liked the idea of instituting an individual carbon trading scheme. This would be a cool experiment in a small community, I think – see how families respond when they are given a certain carbon allocation to spend or sell. This fits in well with the “waste-disposal” framing, although the price of trash disposal is fixed.

That’s all I have for now – the real test of the Forum is if any change happens because of it. Wellington is a small enough and liberally-minded enough place that it just might, but remains to be seen.


Kiwi ideas 1

One of the great experiences of living abroad (or in a new place in the States, for that matter) is that one gets to see how other communities, governments, and societies do things. I was inspired by my friend Mei‘s discussion of the design of the ATM withdrawal process in New Zealand compared to the States to record examples of little things I’ve noticed in Wellington that lead to a more friendly, healthy or otherwise good city.

Both availability and affordability of fresh produce are of concern in the States, especially as the obesity problem and its related health challenges increase. The latter problem is addressed in Wellington through the Sunday vegetable (and fruit) markets, where a plethora of produce is sold for cheap. (How cheap? I can buy enough produce for my house of five for the week and spend ~$40.) The market is not a farmers’ market; rather, the goods sold are bought wholesale from grocery stores when they are just beyond their shelf life. If you’ve ever lived in Boston, this may sound like Haymarket, but the produce is of much better quality, and will last for more than just a couple days.

I’m guessing the accessibility issue may remain a problem; the only two markets I am aware of here are in Wellington City. That said, public housing in Wellington is integrated throughout the city, which may alleviate some of this concern.

It is time that vegetable markets in the United States move beyond venues where produce is sold from local farmers – while these are great, only a small subset of America can actually afford to purchase the goods. The problems of waste from spoilt goods in grocery stores and high cost of fresh foods could both be addressed through the establishment of similar veg markets.


Communicating climate science

After swearing off climate conferences for the past year, I’ve just returned from the first day of the Climate Futures Forum, held at Te Papa here in Wellington, NZ. I was inspired to go to the Forum because it is aiming to be discussion-based as much as it is presentation-based, which I find to be an interesting and potentially powerful model. While we began by, necessarily, touching on the state of climate science, I found the most interesting discussions to be about communicating climate science.

I have thought a lot about communicating climate science. Before I formally researched climate, I was interested in climate policy issues; as such, I have tried to think about how my research can contribute to positive changes in climate policy. Increasingly, however, I became frustrated with the mismatch between the level of understanding of the climate system in the scientific community and the level of understanding of the threat of climate change in the general public. Like many scientists, I responding by retreating into the bubble of research.

At the Forum, I had the pleasure of both talking to Erik Conway over lunch and, subsequently, listening to his talk. (Those of you who have read Merchants of Doubt may be familiar with what I’m about to write – but I must admit I had not read the book, so I’m not sure how much of his talk is from the book itself.) I recently have been caught up with the idea that communication of uncertainty is the key problem facing scientists: if we could just figure out how to make sure people do not discount science because of error bars, we would be set! With this idea in mind, I tried to pick Erik’s brain for his thoughts, which he offered (Don’t start with the uncertainty in your story. That’s called lead-burying in journalism). The thesis of his talk, however, woke me up to how narrowly I’d been viewing the issue. He argued that the problem is not with the science, it’s not with communicating the uncertainties, and another IPCC report will not lead people to take action on climate. The science is probably as clear as it ever needs to be for the sake of public policy, since uncertainty is inherent in science. Rather, we need to explain why addressing climate change is critical from a values perspective. The idea of environmentalism as socialism, as an excuse for government to stick its hands in Average Joe’s life, has become surprisingly prevalent, and clashes with many Americans’ views about liberty, government, and rights. I don’t necessarily share their values, but I also recognize that the current communication strategy of more, clear science is not working. Instead, we must be able to argue why preserving our climate close to its present state – and, relatedly, preserving human societies that have been constructed in a relatively stable climate regime – fundamentally matters.

One other thought from the Forum: two journalists, Fred Pearce and Brian Fallow, had opposing viewpoints about the approach scientists should take when communicating with the public (via the press). The former argued for a greater openness about uncertainties; the latter advocated keeping the message simple and easy to understand, since journalist, editor and reader all have a short attention span (and, generally, a lack of expertise.) My jury is still out on this one – but it is a critical question to think about before talking to the media about science.