Kingston, Jamaica: My First International Survey

Jamaica, land of Bob Marley and the Rastafarians. Land of the bobsled team that came in 14th place in the 1992 Winter Olympics. Land of Red Stripe beer, jerk chicken, and the occasional – but certainly noticeable – whiff of schwag.

Ya mon!

It was a long day, but I’m glad to be here. I barely made my connection in Miami and finally checked into the Courtleigh Hotel in Kingston at 9:30pm. My room is quaint and comfortable, the attached picture is my remote workstation for the next 3 days. The hotel has a nice pool, several bars, and 24 hour fitness and business centers. It is also right smack in the center of New Kingston, straddled between the mighty Pegasus and Hilton hotels, and a stone’s throw away from many of the stores I will be surveying.

I’ve been training as a surveyor in Boston for the last month or so, and with Westchester, NY and Stamford, CT under my belt, I feel adequately prepared to tackle the Caribbean on my first set of international cities. After Kingston, I will survey Kingstown, St. Vincent and then St. George’s, Grenada until August 26th, when I return stateside.

In each city, I will meet with realtors to assess the rental market and will also price a variety of commodities and services, anything from grocery and clothing stores (women’s underwear, ahem) to insurance rates and automobile quotes. The idea is to collect the same kinds of goods and services around the globe, so we always look for the same market basket. Collecting these prices isn’t too bad for a seasoned surveyor, but since I’m new, I’ll likely be putting in long hours.

I’ll also likely be work in some beach time. I hear the Caribbean sunsets are stellar.

Going Green, One Baby Step at a Time

babyI feel like so many people are intimidated by the vastness of the ecological movement, of sustainability, of the color green. In his TED conference talk, “The paradox of choice,” Barry Schwartz explains how too many choices can paralyze us from making a decision. I learned the same theory from my marketing professor in college, who explained why psychoeconomics is so important to businesses. Given similar conditions between two grocery stores, for example, the store with 15 varieties of chips will ultimately attract more business than a store with 75 varieties. Interesting.

These days, it’s overwhelming how many articles and people and blog posts and news stories are giving us ways to go green. Perhaps it is this inundation with information that is holding so many of us back from actually making the choices. Where do we begin? In What About Bob, one of my favorite early 90s comedies, Bill Murray, a basket case of psychological issues, uses the mantra “baby steps” to help sort out his life. It worked for him, and it can work for us. Do some research, but not too much at first, and pick one or two changes that you can stick with. This is much more manageable than trying to green the world all at once. Below are my four suggestions, all of which not only reduce the oft-cited carbon footprint but are also economically justifiable (they will save you money!):

1. Stop buying bottled water.

A chilled plastic bottle of water in the convenience-store cooler is the perfect symbol of this moment in American commerce and culture. It acknowledges our demand for instant gratification, our vanity, our token concern for health. Its packaging and transport depend entirely on cheap fossil fuel. Yes, it’s just a bottle of water–modest compared with the indulgence of driving a Hummer. But when a whole industry grows up around supplying us with something we don’t need–when a whole industry is built on the packaging and the presentation–it’s worth asking how that happened, and what the impact is. And if you do ask, if you trace both the water and the business back to where they came from, you find a story more complicated, more bemusing, and ultimately more sobering than the bottles we tote everywhere suggest.

I understand that bottled water is convenient, but seriously folks, it’s a scam. You are paying for something that you probably already have access to. If you want to read more about the industry and its negative effects on the environment, check out “Message in a Bottle. If you are looking for a stylish, eco-friendly water bottle to get started, check out Klean Kanteen.

2. Change all your light bulbs in your home/office to CFL.

Sitting humbly on shelves in stores everywhere is a product, priced at less than $3, that will change the world. Soon. It is a fairly ordinary item that nonetheless cuts to the heart of a half-dozen of the most profound, most urgent problems we face. Energy consumption. Rising gasoline costs and electric bills. Greenhouse-gas emissions. Dependence on coal and foreign oil. Global warming.

The product is the compact fluorescent lightbulb, a quirky-looking twist of frosted glass. In the energy business, it is called a “CFL,” or an “energy saver.” One scientist calls it an “ice-cream-cone spiral,” because in its most-advanced, most-appealing version, it looks like nothing so much as a cone of swirled soft-serve ice cream.

CFL – meaning compact fluorescent lamp – lightbulbs are the way to go. They emit the same amount of light as regular bulbs but use 75-80% less energy. To learn more, check out “How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Change the World. One. And You’re Looking at it.”

3. Spend less time in the car.

If you have not heard already, China, in preparation for the August Olympic Games, recently put into effect an even-odd license plate law that will help lessen the effects of traffic congestion on the environment. While we probably couldn’t get away with something like this in America..what an idea! Carpool. Bike. Take the bus. I highly recommend, an interactive map that grades your location based on how many common services – grocery stores, libraries, schools, etc. – are within walking distance. When I lived in St. Louis, I used the site to find nearby bars and even discovered a new bookstore and tea shop.

4. Start an indoor/outdoor garden.

You don’t have to become a locavore, but cultivating a few plants is a good idea. Indoor plants absorb toxins and can create healthier living spaces, while outdoor plants can yield fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables that can spice up your cooking. Check out The GRS Garden Project to see how growing your own food requires a minimal amount of labor while at the same time offsetting the rising costs of food.

An additional thought from one of my closest friends :

Do as many things as you can electronically. Transactions, bank payments, communications… much can be handled in the online forum now that using paper should seem superfluous. It’s only a question of time anyway before print communications are all but phased out. Reduce paper usage, yipee.

These are my suggestions. What are yours? Taking smaller steps is an easy way to begin making a difference, and even if you feel like you’re not doing much, trust me, you are.

(photo credit:  dreilinger)

Language Hacking 101

languagetextWould you rather speak 2 languages fluently or be able to casually converse in 5?

How about 8? I just found out that the woman who sleeps down the hall is octolingual. I discovered this when I probed her yesterday to tell me about her childhood in Northern Pakistan. Shamim, my apartment-mate, said modestly, “I speak all the languages of my region.” Growing up in such a tribal area of the world, she learned to communicate through several different tongues – Urdu, English, Wakhi, and Shina to name a few. While I can’t sit down and quiz her on her fluency, the fact that she is pursuing graduate studies in America, in an English-speaking program, is remarkable.

Learning a new language is like learning anything new – it takes a little time. Seriously, just a little. If you understand the right approach, picking up new grammar and vocabulary is as easy as baking a cake. Just follow the recipe.

After you have picked your desired language, deconstruct it.
Timothy Ferriss explains it best in his blog post, “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour.” Translating a few simple phrases in one’s mother tongue (English for most of us, right?) exposes the most blatant grammar rules in another language. Here’s an example with French, using Tim’s favorite sentences:

  • The apple is red. – La pomme est rouge.
  • It is John’s apple. – C’est la pomme de John.
  • I give John the apple. – Je donne la pomme à John.
  • We give him the apple. – Nous lui donnons la pomme.
  • He gives it to John. – Il la donne à John.
  • She gives it to him. – Elle la donne à John.
  • I must give it to him. – Je dois le lui donner.
  • I want to give it to her. – Je veux le lui donner.

Even in a few minutes, we can already begin to understand French grammar. We can distinguish different subjects and their respective verb accompaniments as well as pronoun placement. I’m not too adept at grammar terms, so I’ll stop there, but you get the idea. Spending some time to do direct translations is an invaluable first step in learning another language.

Invest some money into a dictionary, grammar, and vocabulary books:
Now that you have some basic expectations, start taking notes. Flip through grammar books and beginning-level vocabulary books to begin building a base, and write out a few mock conversations that you would have with a native speaker. Make charts. Draw pictures. Highlight and underline. Learn the most common phrases and start speaking them. Traditional language classes are costly and time-intensive, so you might also think about purchasing language learning software as an alternative. Use these resources actively.

Supplement your studies with popular entertainment.
I remember reading 17th century French plays in high school, thinking, why can’t I read Harry Potter instead? Find movies, music, and books in your chosen language and get immersed in popular culture.  Learn to sing a national anthem or other popular songs. Find out what the main sources of news in that language are and start translating the headlines. Download a foreign language podcast and listen to it in the background when you’re answering emails or chatting away with friends. This will keep you interested and will certainly help accelerate the learning curve. I once experimented with music before major exams in college and found that listening to French songs for a few days prior to a test greatly increased my confidence and capacity to speak.

Connect with others learning the same language.
While you may be saving a significant amount of time (and money) by choosing to skip the formal enrollment of language class, learning a language alone is no fun. Seek out language clubs in your area, or better yet, if you happen to know someone who speaks your desired language, set up a regular meeting with them for an informal lesson or conversation. There are also a handful of social networking sites on the Internet that are language-based: check out My Happy Planet and for starters.

Keep useful resources close by.
If available in your language, I highly recommend using a laminated reference guide. These cover the absolute essentials of a language and should be kept close by for reference. In high school, one of my friends used to laminate his study guides for exams and read them in the shower before school. Why not take the same approach? Lather up and learn some words! The Internet also has an amazing collection of common phrases, audio examples, and other sites that offer free language resources. It’s almost overwhelming how many sites are out there.

Use if you have want to learn Spanish, French, Italian, German or Russian.
This site is an online translator that includes the most comprehensive collection of colloquialisms (like the alliteration?) that I have ever seen. Use as often as possible (here is an example, once again in French).

Learning a language should not be intimidating. On the contrary, it should be a fun, interactive experience that connects you with others and helps you learn about another culture.

A few additional language-related articles:
10 Steps to Becoming Fluent in a Language in 6 months or Less
How to Learn a New Language 1 Week Before Your Trip
How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish…or Any Language (another Tim Ferriss piece)
20+ Ways to Learn a Language Online

I know this post is a bit link heavy, but there are too many quality resources on the Internet to ignore.

Adios. Namaste. Hoşça kalın.

(photo credit:  nofrills)

Vertical Farming Exposure

My final days as an undergraduate were spent completing a semester-long research project on vertical farming, so when I read a NY Times article titled, “Country, the City Version: Farms in the Sky Gain New Interest,” I almost fell out of my chair with excitement.

Here is a brief introduction to the subject, cited directly from my research:

Vertical farming is one of the more radical extensions of urban agriculture, still very much a conceptual idea that has less than a decade of research put into it. Also known as skyfarming, vertical farming is the brainchild of Dr. Dickson Despommier, professor of environmental sciences and microbiology at Columbia University. On a basic level, Dr. Despommier wants to bring large-scale agriculture directly to the cities, where most consumers and food markets are located. With the help of his Columbia students, he has theorized an initial plan to erect skyscrapers that would each take up a city block and grow enough food for 50,000 people a year. Given today’s technologies, his model is certainly attainable (sustainable energy and agricultural technologies are only becoming more cost efficient), and his extensive research yields data that illustrates not only environmental, self-sustainable advantages, but also financial profitability.

If you’re looking for a more humorous way to get acquainted:

A semester of research leads me to believe that the single most important factor (for vertical farming to work) lies in economic analysis. For vertical farming to be a sexy investment, it has to be economically justifiable. Despommier himself understands that his data is a bit optimistic, but I feel like he’s emphasizing the right message, simply that vertical farming is an inevitability. Investors will come as the idea gains more and more momentum. In an interview with CNN, Despommier concludes his thoughts:

So when you’re facing issues like this with a growing population in the world, I don’t know how else we can proceed, but up. There’s no where else to go.

The second most important factor – and the crux of my research – is location. In a city like Paris, vertical farming doesn’t make much sense. Building codes are strict, and since France already provides over 20% of the EU’s entire agricultural output (France is agriculturally self-sufficient), a vertical farm wouldn’t do much good. Erecting vertical farms in Hong Kong, however, could yield some real benefits. Rapid urban development has shifted farms away from cities, and currently the region can only produce enough agriculture product for 20% of its population.

And finally, for the entrepreneurs out there, let me finish by throwing out a quick business venture to think about : why not construct a much smaller vertical farm in a moderately sized city?

  • The same theories hold true, but economies of scale would make the project more economically feasible.
  • Each floor could be divided into plots of land that would be rented out to private investors, schools, religious organizations, you name it. This would generate a positive, community-based following.
  • The farm would host agricultural workshops, expert-led tours, perhaps even a restaurant, cafe, event space, or store.

With increased urban agricultural initiatives, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a model similar to this in the near future.

Wait, Flexible Spending?

For a recent college graduate entering the working world, life may appear a bit hectic. Bills. Phone calls. Paperwork. Entering the job market for the first time often means an unexpected and chaotic onslaught of responsibility, regardless of whether you’re working for a grassroots NGO or a high-profile, financial powerhouse. Between filling out a life insurance policy and deciding whether or not to enroll in a flexible spending account, it’s surprising how many young, full-time graduates are verbalizing their nostalgia for the college days, turning to their younger peers and repeating the mantra that my elders have told me from day one: College are the best years of your life.

Eh, I respectfully disagree.

My wildly entertaining antics that I have enjoyed so much over the last few years cannot possibly exist outside the sheltered confines of undergraduate academia. I’m fine with that. Just as I matured from selling lemonade on Carnavon Parkway for a quick summer buck at age 10, I’m moving on from the college life at age 22 – and I couldn’t be more excited. For me, college was not only about the parties, the late nights; it was also about taking chances, venturing outside my comfort zone, discovering my passions and goals, my strengths and weaknesses. Now that I’m in the real world, I can apply the lessons of the last four years into a fruitful, productive lifestyle.

Welcome to alan-perlman, a personal quest to live a purposeful and adventurous life. This blog is a virtual scrapbook of self-discovery, one that I hope will open discussions and trigger ideas, piquing not only the reader’s interest but also the author’s.

Are you ready?