Saigon: Air Quality and Trends

Smack dab in the middle of downtown Saigon sits the U.S. Consulate. In the beginning of February 2016, right before the nation’s largest holiday of Tết (the Lunar New Year), the U.S. Consulate started broadcasting air quality index (AQI) numbers on an hourly basis. The numbers and history can be found here

The AQI numbers are a measure of small particulate matter in the air that we breathe. Specifically, the AQI numbers are related to PM2.5 (or 2.5 micrometers) particulates are so small that when humans inhale them, they are able to pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. If air pollution is getting directly into your lungs, it’s not good. High levels of PM2.5 have been linked to a whole host of nasty stuff, including asthma, cardiovascular diseases and even birth defects.

So in this city packed full of motorbikes, cars, buses, trucks, not to mention all of the dust from construction and smoke from burning wood and charcoal, it was nice to see the numbers and at least be aware of the air quality. Hell, my friend and I even set up a Twitter bot to broadcast the AQI numbers a couple of times a day

Unfortunately, it’s not looking good. I took all of the data from February 5th, 2016, through December 31st, 2016, and sifted through it, looking for peaks, valleys and trends. The slightly good news is that the AQI only hit unhealthy levels 6% of the days in 2016. The more sobering news is that on only 0.9% of the days, the AQI stayed at healthy levels.

What is even more disturbing is the trend that I saw in the data. Although the AQI numbers fluctuated over the course of the year, probably due to wind, rain and other weather patterns, the fact is that the average high AQI in February was 105 (51-100 is considered moderate), but by the end of December, the average high AQI was 126 (101-150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups).

Over the course of the whole of 2016, the average AQI measurement in Saigon was 85. This is squarely in the “moderate” category, but it is edging toward the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” range. Standards according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say that an AQI of below 100 is generally acceptable.

However, there were a number of times that the AQI in Saigon went above 101 and remained there for 24 hours or longer. This is scary. These longer periods of time are when the health of everyone begins to be affected, and this occurred 27 times over the course of the year. Specifically, these periods were:

  1. From 10 p.m. February 7th through 7 p.m. February 10th (72 hours).
  2. From 12 a.m. February 18th through 3 a.m. February 20th (52 hours).
  3. From 8 p.m. February 20th through 8 p.m. February 21st (25 hours).
  4. From 9 p.m. February 23rd through 9 p.m. February 24th (25 hours).
  5. From 9 p.m. February 28th through 11 p.m. March 3rd (99 hours).
  6. From 1 a.m. March 26th through 4 a.m. March 27th (28 hours).
  7. From 9 a.m. March 27th through 6 a.m. March 30th (70 hours).
  8. From 4 p.m. April 14th through 11 a.m. April 16th (45 hours).
  9. From 9 a.m. May 16th through 1 p.m. May 20th (101 hours).
  10. From 10 p.m. May 20th through 5 a.m. May 22nd (32 hours).
  11. From 4 p.m. June 8th through 3 p.m. June 9th (24 hours).
  12. From 9 p.m. June 23rd through 12 p.m. June 25th (41 hours).
  13. From 9 p.m. July 22nd through 8 p.m. July 24th (48 hours).
  14. From 3 p.m. October 3rd through 5 p.m. October 5th (27 hours).
  15. From 6 p.m. October 8th through 8 p.m. October 9th (27 hours).
  16. From 8 p.m. October 10th through 5 a.m. October 16th (130 hours).
  17. From 12 a.m. October 22nd through 8 a.m. October 23rd (33 hours).
  18. From 8 a.m. October 24th through 7 p.m. October 25th (26 hours).
  19. From 7 a.m. October 31st through 8 p.m. November 1st (38 hours).
  20. From 4 a.m. November 10th through 11 p.m. November 11th (44 hours).
  21. From 7 p.m. November 14th through 3 a.m. November 18th (81 hours).
  22. From 9 p.m. November 24th through 3 a.m. November 27th (53 hours).
  23. From 3 p.m. November 27th through 3 p.m. November 29th (49 hours).
  24. From 6 p.m. December 6th through 9 p.m. December 11th (126 hours).
  25. From 1 p.m. December 16th through 6 p.m. December 17th (30 hours).
  26. From 9 p.m. December 17th through 8 p.m. December 22nd (118 hours).
  27. From 1 a.m. December 23rd through 4 a.m. December 29th (148 hours).

Keep in mind, these are only the periods of 24 hours or more when the AQI exceeded 100 for 24 hours or more. Out of a total of 7884 hours of data, 1890 of them have an AQI of 100 or more, or 24% of the time.

Here are some visualizations from the data.

AQI Ave

AQI Monthly Ave

Levels of AQI lead to health problems and even death, yet nothing has been done to address these problems. Deaths from air pollution in Vietnam have increased recently, but no one is speaking out.

Meanwhile, in a dramatic about-face for the worse, Vietnam decided not to pursue clean nuclear energy, instead opting for more and more coal-fired plants, which in turn will lead to more deaths from air pollution. An interesting note is that Vietnam cannot even produce enough of its own coal now, so it will have to import coal to burn at these coal-fired plants.

According to Vietnamese media, there are currently 19 coal-fired power plants in the nation as of 2016. The plan is to increase this number to 31 by 2020, and 51 by 2030. And with a number of these coal-fired power plants planned for the Mekong Delta and other regions adjacent to Saigon, the AQI in town is only going to get worse.

Another huge aspect of pollution here that leaders refuse to acknowledge is that vehicle use is choking the city, literally. Even public buses, meant to reduce congestion and pollution, do not help as they occupy motorbike lanes and belch out black and putrid smoke due to poor maintenance.

I use an air filter when I sleep and a pollution mask when riding a motorbike. If Saigon continues hellbent on its current path of self destruction, I will have to use both all hours of the day.

Note: It is important to remember that all of the AQI data is from one collection point: The U.S. Consulate on Le Duan in downtown Saigon. This area is arguably much lower in pollutants than other areas due to smaller roads, fewer huge construction projects, etc. The AQI along highways and construction sites is surely much higher.

It is also worth noting that there are some brief periods of time over the year when the AQI monitor was down and there is no data available. This is most likely due to technical problems at the monitoring station itself.

15 Years Later

A MOMENT OF SILENCE, BEFORE I START THIS POEM

Before I start this poem, I’d like to ask you to join me

In a moment of silence
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon last September 11th.
I would also like to ask you
To offer up a moment of silence
For all of those who have been harassed, imprisoned,
disappeared, tortured, raped, or killed in retaliation for those strikes,
For the victims in both Afghanistan and the U.S.

And if I could just add one more thing…
A full day of silence
For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have died at the
hands of U.S.-backed Israeli
forces over decades of occupation.
Six months of silence for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation as a result of an 11-year U.S.
embargo against the country.

Before I begin this poem,
Two months of silence for the Blacks under Apartheid in South Africa,
Where homeland security made them aliens in their own country.
Nine months of silence for the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer of
concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors went on as if alive.
A year of silence for the millions of dead in Vietnam – a people,
not a war – for those who
know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel, their
relatives’ bones buried in it, their babies born of it.
A year of silence for the dead in Cambodia and Laos, victims of
a secret war … ssssshhhhh….
Say nothing … we don’t want them to learn that they are dead.
Two months of silence for the decades of dead in Colombia,
Whose names, like the corpses they once represented, have
piled up and slipped off our tongues.

Before I begin this poem.
An hour of silence for El Salvador …
An afternoon of silence for Nicaragua …
Two days of silence for the Guatemaltecos …
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years.
45 seconds of silence for the 45 dead at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence for the hundred million Africans who found
their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains.
And for those who were strung and swung from the heights of
sycamore trees in the south, the north, the east, and the west…

100 years of silence…
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples from this half of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots like Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek,
Fallen Timbers, or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry on the refrigerator of our consciousness …

So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust.

Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be. Not like it always has
been.

Because this is not a 9/11 poem.
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.

This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written.
And if this is a 9/11 poem, then:
This is a September 11th poem for Chile, 1971.
This is a September 12th poem for Steven Biko in South Africa, 1977.
This is a September 13th poem for the brothers at Attica Prison, New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and Newsweek ignored.
This is a poem for interrupting this program.

And still you want a moment of silence for your dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children
Before I start this poem we could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.

If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit.

If you want a moment of silence, put a brick through the window of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost.
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses, the jailhouses, the
Penthouses and the Playboys.

If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton’s 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered.

You want a moment of silence
Then take it NOW,
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the second hand,
In the space between bodies in embrace,
Here is your silence.
Take it.
But take it all…Don’t cut in line.
Let your silence begin at the beginning of crime. But we,
Tonight we will keep right on singing…For our dead.

EMMANUEL ORTIZ, September 11th, 2002.

The Futility of Writing Letters

Every year or so I blast out a message online asking if anyone would like to receive a letter or postcard in the mail, the condition being that they need to send me a response. Usually people say they would love to get one and promise to reply, but the replies never come. Or if they do reply, it’s one or two at most and then they dry up forever. There have been a few exceptions to this, but not many.

So why don’t people write letters? The most common response is probably, “I’m too busy.” That’s a pretty lame excuse. How much time do you spend every day playing with your phone, on Facebook or watching TV? Seriously, it doesn’t take much effort to shave ten minutes off of some time-wasting activity and scribble out a few lines on a piece of paper.

Another excuse that I’ve heard: “I don’t have stamps” or “The Post Office is so inconvenient.” Baloney. If you live in the U.S., or basically any other developed nation, this is not a valid excuse. Do you know how easy it is for you? Do you know the gigantic network of people who are ready to serve you by mailing your letter? You can put money in your mailbox and receive stamps the next day! You can put a letter in the mailbox six days a week and it will be taken care of!

Try living in a developing country. The postal service here in Vietnam seems to consist mainly of languid bureaucrats opening packages and soliciting bribes. Receiving mail here is a luxury for most people; it is not delivered daily, there are no regular carriers coming to every residence and there are no neighborhood post offices. I’m relatively lucky working just a few blocks from the central post office in town. If the post office wasn’t nearby it would be a nightmare getting things in the mail.

Back to letter-writing though, it seems mostly like a exercise in futility for me due to the limited responses that I get. I’ve heard of people looking up random addresses and mailing Christmas cards there; maybe I should try something like that with letters… I might get some responses.

I guess the gist of these paragraphs is this: take a few minutes every week to write a letter or postcard. They are rare and invaluable items in this day and age and show an immense amount of care to those that receive them. Also, if I write to you, write back.

Comparing the Garmin Forerunner 235 and the Xiaomi Mi Band (Optimized Version)

One of the great things about running and exercising these days is all of the technology and analysis tools that are available. I’m not super hardcore into tons of running tech or anything, but I do appreciate a nice running watch. For nearly two months, I’ve been using the Garmin Forerunner 235 to track my runs and also as my activity tracker throughout the day. I am far more interested in tracking the data on my runs, and the activity tracking that Garmin included on the device was a nice little bonus (and an occasional motivator to get out of my chair and walk around).

I also have the Xiaomi Mi Band (the original, optimized version with no heart rate monitoring and all-white LEDs) at home and it wasn’t getting much use at the moment, so I decided to compare the two devices. Keep in mind that the Mi Band only uses an accelerometer to track movement, distance and steps, while the Forerunner 235 uses GPS (and GLONASS, if you choose) to track distance and speed during runs and other activities; otherwise satellite tracking is turned off and it uses an accelerometer to track steps.

Another major difference between the two devices is price. The Forerunner 235 retails for $330, while the original Mi Band is around $25 and the Mi Band 1S with a heart rate monitor is between $20 and $30. While the higher price of the Garmin might put off some people, the Mi Band is relatively inexpensive and is an easy introduction into the world of wearable fitness trackers.

For the comparison, I put on the Forerunner 235 and the Mi Band around 9 p.m., then went to sleep, woke up and went on a 6.6-mile run in the morning. I wanted to compare the two devices on their sleep tracking and also on the way they track steps. Here is the data that I got from the Garmin Forerunner 235 and the Xiaomi Mi Band after my run:

 

FR 235 Mi Band Difference
Total Sleep: 7:02 6:59 3 mins
Deep Sleep: 3:00 1:55 1 hr, 5 mins
Light Sleep: 3:57 5:04 1 hr, 7 mins
Steps: 11,964 11,282 682 steps
Time: 52:28 1:23:00 ~33 mins
Distance: 10.64km 10.2km 0.44km (0.27 miles)

Sleep
The two devices were very similar in estimating sleep time; only three minutes different from each other. However, Garmin and Xiaomi must use different algorithms to estimate light and deep sleep, as those numbers showed some significant differences.

Steps
Total step counts weren’t that far off from each other either. I would guess that Garmin’s step count is a little more accurate as during runs, the Forerunner is tracking cadence (e.g. the number of times that your feet strike the road per minute). However, the Mi Band seems alright, especially considering its technology and price.

With the Mi Band, you can’t press a button or anything to indicate that you are starting a run like with the Garmin. Instead, the Mi Fit software estimates your total active time and also your distance based on the information from the band. For around seven minutes or so before and after my run, I walked around to warm up and cool down, and perhaps the Mi Band was tracking this as part of my activity (and technically I was active, just not running).

Distance
When it came to distance in this activity, I am amazed that the Mi Band held its own, despite no satellite tracking technology. It was only a couple hundred yards off in estimating my running distance. Quite impressive for an unassuming little band.

Personally, I’m gonna stick with with my Garmin as my primary activity tracker for everything, but for folks who are interested in wearable fitness tracking, the Mi Band is a great device with a very low entry barrier. I’ve given several to family members as they have a great price point and provide some interesting data.

 

In Praise of Bình Dân

I’m not really sure how to translate “bình dân” into English. I’ve heard some people translate it as “popular,” but it also implies affordable for the working class. Food and drink for the common man. In my head, “bình” is part of “bình thường”; regular or normal, and “dân” literally means person or people. I like my coffee bình dân, I like my breakfast bình dân, I like my lunch bình dân and I like to drink beer in a place that can be described as bình dân. Why? No bullshit. There are no menus, no stupid ordering flow, no discretely signalling waiters if you need something. It is food and drink done right for people who don’t have time for all the other crap.

When you go to a bình dân place, you sit down at the first available seat you can find. Most bình dân places are out on the street, so if you’re lucky there will be some protection from the sun and/or rain, and maybe a fan. You want aircon? Go downtown and waste your money on a place completely overstaffed and with a badly translated English menu.

Sit down and someone will ask you what you want. If they don’t, tell someone what you want. If they’re busy, start shouting what you want until you’re acknowledged. There is no coming over to politely present a menu for you to look over and then standing idly around while you make a decision. These people are trying to make money, damnit, and the faster they can get you served, the faster another customer can take your place.

So you’ve got your food but need some chili or fish sauce? Start asking immediately. No one is there? Start shouting again. You aren’t expected to eat unless your food is exactly the way you want it. Is there a manager that needs consulted? Nope. They just get things out to you fast and with no bullshit.

Same with the bill. If you’ve had a few things to eat when you’re out for some beers with friends, you may get someone’s messy arithmetic scribbled on a scrap of paper. For breakfast, lunch and coffee though, the staff will just remember what you had, how much everything is and do the addition in their head. Usually the people telling you the bill will hold the money too, so there’s no waiting for your change either. You pay and you’re out.

This is the beauty of bình dân and why it appeals to me. There is no pretentiousness and everyone knows it. You get your beer, or your coffee or your food quick and efficiently and the business owners don’t waste money on overhead. It’s one of the greatest things about Vietnam.

14 Years.

A MOMENT OF SILENCE, BEFORE I START THIS POEM

Before I start this poem, I’d like to ask you to join me

In a moment of silence
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon last September 11th.
I would also like to ask you
To offer up a moment of silence
For all of those who have been harassed, imprisoned,
disappeared, tortured, raped, or killed in retaliation for those strikes,
For the victims in both Afghanistan and the U.S.

And if I could just add one more thing…
A full day of silence
For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have died at the
hands of U.S.-backed Israeli
forces over decades of occupation.
Six months of silence for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation as a result of an 11-year U.S.
embargo against the country.

Before I begin this poem,
Two months of silence for the Blacks under Apartheid in South Africa,
Where homeland security made them aliens in their own country.
Nine months of silence for the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer of
concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors went on as if alive.
A year of silence for the millions of dead in Vietnam – a people,
not a war – for those who
know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel, their
relatives’ bones buried in it, their babies born of it.
A year of silence for the dead in Cambodia and Laos, victims of
a secret war … ssssshhhhh….
Say nothing … we don’t want them to learn that they are dead.
Two months of silence for the decades of dead in Colombia,
Whose names, like the corpses they once represented, have
piled up and slipped off our tongues.

Before I begin this poem.
An hour of silence for El Salvador …
An afternoon of silence for Nicaragua …
Two days of silence for the Guatemaltecos …
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years.
45 seconds of silence for the 45 dead at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence for the hundred million Africans who found
their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains.
And for those who were strung and swung from the heights of
sycamore trees in the south, the north, the east, and the west…

100 years of silence…
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples from this half of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots like Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek,
Fallen Timbers, or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry on the refrigerator of our consciousness …

So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust.

Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be. Not like it always has
been.

Because this is not a 9/11 poem.
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.

This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written.
And if this is a 9/11 poem, then:
This is a September 11th poem for Chile, 1971.
This is a September 12th poem for Steven Biko in South Africa, 1977.
This is a September 13th poem for the brothers at Attica Prison, New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and Newsweek ignored.
This is a poem for interrupting this program.

And still you want a moment of silence for your dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children
Before I start this poem we could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.

If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit.

If you want a moment of silence, put a brick through the window of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost.
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses, the jailhouses, the
Penthouses and the Playboys.

If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton’s 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered.

You want a moment of silence
Then take it NOW,
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the second hand,
In the space between bodies in embrace,
Here is your silence.
Take it.
But take it all…Don’t cut in line.
Let your silence begin at the beginning of crime. But we,
Tonight we will keep right on singing…For our dead.

EMMANUEL ORTIZ, September 11th, 2002.

Pictures from the Saigon Tweetup on November 25th, 2014

Just a few pictures from our merry little Tweetup last night at Game On in downtown Saigon.

2014-11-25 21.03.12
The Saigon Tweetup!
B3SP69hCIAAs-J8
@layered, @LeHaTu, @jon7b, @ericburdette and @ChristophK2003 (more active on @evecoo). Thanks to @CotterVN for snapping this pic!
2014-11-25 20.03.22
@layered, @LeHaTu, @sapuche, @dfgvietnam and @lienh.