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.

On Being a Millennial in America

I am subscribed to Harper’s Magazine and enjoy reading it every month. One of my favorite sections of the publication, and the item that drew me to the magazine when I was a teenager, is the Harper’s Index. In the Harper’s Index, they list off a number of statistics in a manner that usually come off as surprising and humorous. For example, here are two statistics from their January 2013 issue:

Average salary earned by a full-time-employed male college graduate one year after graduation: $42,918
By a full-time-employed female graduate: $35,296

What they’re doing here is highlighting the difference pay for men and women and how women still aren’t treated as equals in the workplace.

But then I started thinking about my own situation as a member of the millennial generation, and here are some of my own statistics, presented in the Harper’s Index style:

Number of years since I’ve graduated from college: 8
Number of masters degrees I’ve obtained: 1
Highest hourly wage that I’ve earned in the U.S.: $11
Average annual salary amount this translates to: $22,000
Percent lower than the average female salary one year after graduation from college: 38
Percent lower than the average male salary one year after graduation from college: 49
Number of months that I’ve had health insurance in the U.S. since graduating from college: 3

As a person born in the early 1980s, I consider myself to be of the so-called “millennial” generation. Like many of my generation, I did everything I was supposed to do: I went to college, I got my degree, I volunteered abroad for several years, I got my MBA, I worked in a field I enjoyed, etc. Then in September 2012, I found myself looking for a job in Oregon. And I couldn’t find any full-time, stable employment. And I still can’t find any.

So what’s going on, America? I did exactly what I was supposed to do. Where is this well-paying job that I should have, according to Harper’s Index? Well, the same Index also has this item:

Rank of “attire” among the leading reasons “millennials” are unsuccessful in job interviews: 1

To which my response, in Index style, is:

Number of tailored suits I own: 2
Approximate number of ties in my closet: 20
Approximate number of tie knot styles I have memorized: 3

My qualifications are sound, I know how to dress and present myself, so what’s going on, America? Why can’t I find a job? Is it because nepotism, cronyism and corruption are just as prevalent here in the land of the free as they are in third-world countries? Is it because that, no matter what the job reports and economic forecasts say, the American economy is dying a slow death?

For such a large nation, an incredible amount of the U.S. economy is based on personal debt. You want a college degree? Here’s your debt. You want a car? Gotta take out a loan to pay for it. Want a house? Gotta get a mortgage and pay back your debt for 30 years or so. Well America, you tricked me into the college loan debt, but not the other stuff. Here, let me present it in the Harper’s Index style:

Number of cars I’ve owned in the U.S.: 0
Amount of real estate I own in the U.S.: 0
Number of cars I intend to buy in the U.S.: 0
Amount of real estate I intend to buy in the U.S.: 0

And it looks like I’m not the only one. Increasing numbers of my generation are not buying cars and owning a home is becoming a more unattainable dream. Good for us! If the American economy is suddenly faced with a generation of people who refuse to buy into these lifelong debt schemes, change might actually occur.

Allen Ginsberg wrote: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” I’d like to amend that quote for many people of my generation: “American I’ve given you all and you’ve taken more.”

As this year of 2012 draws to a close, here’s my favorite statistic, presented in Index style:

Number of years until I will go back to Vietnam: 1

Yes Vietnam, where jobs are plentiful, rents are low and you don’t need a car.

Reflections on the 4th of July

On the occasion of this Independence Day, I have to admit that I am pretty proud to be an American. There have been times in my life when I have been ashamed of my nationality and wanted to leave the U.S. and never come back, but over time my attitude has changed.

Why am I proud to be an American? Well, it took nearly eight years of living in a socialist country for my attitude to change.

As an American, I will be the first to admit that my nation is not perfect. But as an American, I am free to say that my nation is not perfect. As an American, I am free to march and protest for what I believe in and not have to worry about being detained or arrested for expressing my opinions and beliefs.

This is a great gift that citizens of the United States and many other nations enjoy. While we should be proud of these freedoms, we should also take occasions such as these to remember that there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who do not know such freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.

Celebrate America’s independence today and enjoy it. And tomorrow, work for and support change that will bring freedom to those hundreds of millions of people in the 21st century who still do not enjoy it.

Happy 4th of July!

Cell Phone Issues in the Land of the Free

Out of the past eight years, I’ve spent more than seven of them in Vietnam. However, this fall I will be moving back to the U.S.  As a mobile technology enthusiast, I have been keeping an eye on phone plan costs so that I won’t be overwhelmed when I get back. After a fair amount of time spent scouring nearly every cell provider in the U.S., I’ve come to the conclusion that every cell phone company and provider in the U.S. is a fraud and is basically scamming customers out of money. My reasons are below.

-Contracts: All of the main cell providers in the U.S. require a 2-year contract that carries with it heavy termination fees. In Vietnam, contracts for cell service are rare. Like the majority of people here I can buy a new phone anytime I want and then pop in my SIM card and it works. I chose to buy a smartphone (unsubsidized of course), which was expensive, but I’m not tied by a contract and can switch carriers and phones anytime I feel like it.

-Service: Is it even possible for customers with U.S. cell phone companies to change their service plan at some midway point in contract? I have no idea. But I’m guessing it involves fees and charges. In Vietnam I send an SMS message to the provider telling them what data plan I want and it is turned on and functioning immediately.

-Data tethering: In the U.S., I’ve been reading how customers have to pay for services that are built into their phones, for example, data tethering (i.e. turning your smartphone into a wifi hotspot using your data connection). I know that Verizon, for example, charges $10 a month for the privilege of using this feature, which is a built in function of many smartphones. However, here in Vietnam, with my HTC Desire HD it couldn’t be simpler: I just press the wifi hotspot button and it’s working. No extra fees. Like it should be.

-Data pricing: The U.S. media was getting all worked up about Verizon’s new data plans. They are still expensive and crappy, believe me. For me coming back to the U.S., as a new subscriber on Verizon, I’d be paying like $100 a month for service, including data. In Vietnam I pay about $2.50 a month for 650MB of mobile data. When I go over that amount, it’s 5 cents a megabyte. How do you people in the U.S. manage to go along with this stuff?

-Activation fee: Come on people, how can you put up with this crap? These cell companies are basically just taking your money for no justifiable reason. How they all haven’t been shut down for criminal behavior is beyond me. In Vietnam, you buy a phone and you buy a SIM card and you have a working cell phone in minutes. No extra charges to speak of.

After wasting too much time researching the costs and weighing the benefits of getting a new smartphone and a contract with a U.S. cell phone company, I have decided that the range of options is just a bunch of crap. I’m going to get one dumb phone on my dad’s family plan and use all of my apps on tablets where I have wifi. Reasonable cell phone service in the U.S. for a decent price is a joke, and I seem to be the only one laughing.

Addendum:

One of the reasons that tipped me over the edge and inspired me to write this post was that I calculated the cost of data and storage over several mediums after a little research online. Here’s what I found:

-HDD, price per gigabyte: $0.07 (2009)
-SSD, price per gigabyte: $0.82 (2011)
-Both of these prices, I should note, are constantly falling and have been for years.

-Broadband internet in the U.S. (numbers rounded up), price per gigabyte: $0.13 per month (2011).

-Mobile data in Vietnam, price per gigabyte: less than $5 per month (and falling).
-Mobile data on Verizon’s new plan, per gigabyte: $50 per month.

My Australian friend in Vietnam, who shares my passion for mobile technology, once told me: “I don’t know why you put up with so much crap from mobile phone companies in America.”

I don’t know either, and I’m still wondering why so many people do.

Plans for the Fall

Many of you who know my wife and I are aware of the big change that is coming up in our lives. But for those who don’t know what’s up, or are a bit fuzzy on the particulars, I thought I’d lay out some details to set the record straight, so to speak.

My wife, Ngân, has received a scholarship from the Fulbright Program and will study her master’s degree in international studies at the University of Oregon starting in September. I have decided to go with her while she studies and find a job in Oregon during this time. We are both excited about this big change in our lives, but also a bit stressed with the moving aspect of it.

Ngân, who has never been to the U.S., will be experiencing some culture shock, for sure. And I will likely experience the same. However, we are tough, smart and tenacious people and are looking forward to this challenge.

To all of my friends in Vietnam, I will miss you terribly.

To all of my friends who might be along our travel route, I hope we can meet up.

As one final note, we will not be immigrating to the U.S. The Fulbright Program is administered by the U.S. Department of State, and Ngân has signed an agreement that she will return to Vietnam after her studies are completed.

Lots of changes, lots of excitement and lots of great things lie in wait for our future.

Travel plans are as follows:
-Ngân will travel to Massachusetts in early August for a month of intensive English training and orientation.
-I will fly into Virginia in mid August.
-We will be in Ohio in late August / early September.
-We will take a road trip / move to Eugene, Oregon in early September and arrive there before classes start.