April 26, 2010

Progress Island!

Category: Humor,Puerto Rico — Biella @ 3:20 pm

For like the millionth time, I am back in Puerto Rico, AKA Progress Island, at least according to MST 3000. My mom came down with severe pneumonia and I am waiting it out until she is more stable. Today, my friend forwarded the MST 3000 video as she suspected it would cheer me up and she was right. I have not seen anything so fine in a long time. If you know nothing of PR-America relations, it won’t be (that) funny but if you do, it is sharp as a nail. Oh and the 70s’ music adds a real nice–almost porn-like—touch. Make sure to watch part two “so you can sugar frost your damn corn flakes, you filfthy American pigs!”

November 25, 2009

Ninja Mind Tactics

Category: Alzheimers,Puerto Rico — Biella @ 5:42 am

Over the years—far too many years—I have occasionally chronicled the slow death of my mother, a death of mind, personality, really person that comes with Alzheimers. She has officially had the illness for 7 years now but had symptoms prior to this time, in the form of perceptual disturbances that are the defining feature of the rare type of Alzheimers she has, Benson’s syndrome.

As her illness progressed and we saw her doctors they would always ask: “what other illnesses or health problems does Vera have?” And I would answer “none.” Without fail and almost immediately, the inquiring doctor would respond back “none?” often with a slightly raised eyebrow, the one word uttered not to challenge the veracity of my answer, but used instead to convey another meaning, often bathed in some mixture of compassion and pity. It was an acknowledgement of the future that awaited us, basically stating “with no other illness, this is going to be on heck of long and difficult haul of a life experience,” which has indeed been the case.

However, after nearly two years of being bed bound in a nursing home, physical health problems are now creeping in—and my mother is descending into different type of hell, especially since she can no longer communicate the physical pain she might be in. The words she knows are few: “no” and a few other words (she likes to tell people they are “loco” and indeed I can only imagine how true this accusation of “crazy” is given that we are keeping her alive against her wishes). Her consistent and persistent wailing, agitation and crying do of course communicate the depth of suffering—this being the hardest thing to bear witness to. She does have periods of calm, coaxed in part by the drugs she is given but these are not enough to override the pain she and we feel.

About two months ago, her body started to give, the first problem being a fracture that led to significant internal bleeding and required a blood transfusion and a brace she is still wearing. A few weeks ago when I was visiting her, she basically developed these black and red welts on the bottom of her feet in a manner of two days, so instead of boarding a plane to NYC, I took her to the emergency room and stayed a full week while she was pumped with intravenous antibiotics. At first, doctors thought it might be gangrene, which was mortifying mostly because of all the associations that come with it. The doctors determined that it was not in fact gangrene but that she has a bone infection—technically called osteomyelitis —a tricky condition to treat that requires at minimum 45 days of IV antibiotics.

The hospital/doctors who had originally determined she would stay there for her treatment, changed their mind unexpectedly and announced their intention to ship her to a long-term care facility, which in theory we were not opposed to, except for the fact that it is very far from where my sister lives, and also it is a facility we had not verified for ourselves. On top of it, we knew she had a legal right stay in the hospital (though some doctors informed us otherwise). We preferred the hospital because it is so close to our house, we would be able to hire someone to visit her when my sister is at work, and we suspect that she will have additional complications from 45 days of IV abx so why not stick around and receive treatment and care from the same internist who had been nothing but a great doctor.

The story took a turn toward the surreal when the infectious disease doctor decided to “release her” to her nursing home with a treatment of oral antibiotics, even though every single doctor we saw from the emergency room doctor to the weekend internist who subs for her regular doctor, repeatedly informed us the only treatment is IV antibiotics for at least 45 days, possibly more (which is the normal treatment protocol).

July 1, 2009

Biella’s Guide to PR: Cafe con Leche

Category: Biella's_Guide_to_Puerto_Rico,Coffee,Puerto Rico — Biella @ 4:16 am

coffee roaster, originally uploaded by the biella.

What would life be without coffee? It frightens me to entertain a life without the stuff as it is one my most favorite things in the world. Some nights I am excited to go to bed just so I can wake up and have my cup of joe (I am not one of the Fortunate Ones who can drink coffee at night).

A few mornings a week I decide I would rather sit at a coffee shop to sip on my morning joe and I am quite lucky in this regard because I live down the street from what I think is the best local coffee shop in the metropolitan area: Hacienda San Pedro, which is also a local plantation, one of the many you can visit for the day.

They roast their coffee on premises (which they are doing right now) in a very cool old fashioned looking roaster, also pictured above, which they seem to do between 7 AM and -8AM when I tend to be here. When you step outside after the roasting you walk through a billowing and light poof of coffee smoke, which is like being blessed by the gods of coffee before starting your day.

The great thing about the coffee aside from its taste is the price. The cup featured below is around $ 1.60 which beats the 3 dollars you would pay at a Starbucks, which have, in the last 3 years, infested and infected the island. Given that so much coffee is grown here, it is great to see these sorts of places sprout and serve the local stuff.

mac with ubuntu and bill!>

They have a good selection of baked goods for b-fest, free wireless (yay!), and great music playing, usually something like Silivio Rodirguez or some reggae. After you are done, you can head to the museum right down the street, which not only has a great collection of local and international art, but a great peaceful garden, and one of my favorite murals.

The coffee shop is located at Avenida De Diego #318 (though there is no number out front, but there is a banner). Basically it is between the highway overpass in Condado, which is right next to the art museum and a large avenue called Ponce de Leon, which resides in the heart of Santurce.

Currently, they are open Mon-Friday from 6:30 to 6, on Sat open from 9 to 3:30 and closed on Sunday.

June 27, 2009

Biella’s Guide to Puerto Rico: El Yunque, The “Rock” and Luquillo

Category: Biella's_Guide_to_Puerto_Rico,Puerto Rico — Biella @ 5:04 pm

El Yunque, The "Rock", originally uploaded by the biella.

Every island kid has been dragged at least once, probably multiple times, to the meandering roads that eventually lead to the Puerto Rican National Rain Forest, El Yunque. One can leave the bustling capital and in about 1 hour find yourself in the smack middle of a tropical rainforest. Once there, you can check out the falls, take a dip in one of the pools “charcos” or take a more challenging hike to reach one of the handful exposed rocks where there are stellar views of the forest and beyond.

I have many memories of this place, most of them great. My parents used to drag me and my sister there at least once a year to “ohh and ahhh” at the small waterfalls on the side of the roads. On occasion we would hike for all of 20 minutes before heading to the beach. In high school, my friends would visit occasionally and then when I worked for an environmental camp after I graduated from high school, I found myself there for days, sleeping under the soggy skies and amidst the unbelievably loud coquis (who sing to mark their tiny territory and attract the ladies, naturally).

Now, like most things on this island, there are serious mistakes to be made when doing anything, whether it is going to the movies (as Micah and I found out last night) as well as hitting the rainforest. All of this is due to one problem: this island is uber-populated and everyone also naturally loves to do stuff…. so the name of the game is often crowds and crowds and crowds.

So, first lesson about El Yunque: If you can avoid going on the weekend, absolutely do so, especially during the summer. It will be much easier to find parking (which is often on the side of the road) and the trails will be less crowded (though that means less chance of hearing some 13 year old kid screaming that he found the Chupacabra, as we were so lucky to hear today). But if you plan on swimming in one of the watering holes/falls, I would avoid the weekend like the plague. Well unless you love swimming in the midst of screaming, though admittedly quite joyful, kids.

Once you enter the preserve, it is worth your while to go to the visitor’s center, which costs a few bucks per person (the park cost nothing to get in, but well, giving a few bucks to a rainforest seems like right thing to do). There you can learn a little more about its history, get a map, and get a first view of the forest since the center is architecturally as it should be: open and airy so it basically bleeds into the canopy of trees.

If you want to hike, there are a handful of trails and many are paved but the longer, more challenging ones are not. The two I recommend are The Trade Winds Trail (which is like not officially kept up, but is kick ass) and El Yunque Trail.

Finding the Trade Winds Trail is a little tricky as it at the end of the road behind the yellow gates and then you have to walk a few more minutes until you see this sign. Here are some more detailedinstructions for finding it. I have slept on this trail, have hiked for 5 hours on it without seeing a soul, and apparently it is even longer…

Another trail, which is definitely worth a whirl, is the El Yunque Trail. There are great instructions if you follow the previous link so I won’t repeat them here. What I like about this is that there is 1) a pygmy forest (I just like saying that phrase) and a grand slam ending, with a beautiful view and when it is totally clear (today was not so clear as the Saharan sands, for reals, were in the air), you can see to the ocean. If it is not clear, it is still pretty nice and in fact, being in the middle of a cloud is just as enchanting as a clear sky and good views.


June 16, 2009

Free Wireless in PR

Category: Puerto Rico — Biella @ 1:55 am

San Juan is not teeming with free hot spots but there are certainly a few one can tap into.
Perhaps my favorite place to get wireless is a newish coffee shop on Avenida De Diego in Santurce by the name of Hacienda San Pedro. Their coffee is good, roasted in the shop and a cup of cappuccino is only 1.65.

The other place to get free wireless, which is hard to believe, is Starbucks. Their cappucinos are more like 3+ and usually you have to pay for wireless. For some reason and this has been the case for 5 years now, in every Starbucks I have been to here, including the airport where I am now struggling to stay awake, have provided free wireless with a company called Blue Cenntenial.

The thing is when you fire up your computer, you would never know it was free because you are directed to a log in (or sign up page) where you think that they will of course ask for your credit card information. Well when you sign up, you give your information, which can be fake and under the credit card section, there is sort of nothing there, you finish your transaction and vaulla, free account. They don’t bother to tell you on the page or in the shop this is the case, so you just gotta know. If you don’t have a computer and are bored in the airport, you can also play Galaga, which are located at nearly every gate.

So for those in PR needing free wireless, two coffee shops that reside on the opposite side of quality both have it.

May 29, 2009

My return

Category: Alzheimers,Puerto Rico — Biella @ 5:59 am

After a fairly tiring (though exciting) semester of teaching, I have packed my books, lots of files, and other things I Can’t Live Without, and shipped myself via Jet Blue to Puerto Rico where I will spend my summer. My reason for being here is simple: I want to see my mother who continues to live in a state of minimalism at a nursing home with Alzheimers. Coming home is never easy. Seeing her for the first time after an absence of months is especially hard and expect will continue to be as such, so long as I have periods away from her like I do. I never imagined that I would live between two cities as I do, but in general I am grateful I have a job that allows me to bridge these two places.

When I am in NYC, I am so ridiculously busy (being an assistant professor is not unlike being a medical resident and doctor except the tempo slows down during our summers, at least to some extent) that I don’t—for better or for worse—have my mother always perched on my mind. But being here is a different story. Not only do I have to structure my own time (so my mind can wander easily into those nether regions), but the house I stay in is nothing but filled with memories of my mom, most especially from the last 4 years she spent here with Alzheimers

Along with visiting my mom, most of my time will be occupied in front of the computer working on the first draft of my book manuscript, which is due on September 15, 2009, 2 days before my birthday. I think I can hack it given that I have lots of time on my hands and when I get into work mode I can get a lot done.

But the first month or so is going to be really really rough. I always find the transition into “stare at your monitor mode” for the entire day sort of tough. Puerto Rico also has a host of magnetic distractions like the garden and the beach, which I don’t love but in fact adore. I also don’t really associate the tropics/this house/the summer with mental work, but I will spend the next few weeks reversing that association or else I will be in deep trouble!

Right now I am setting up the office, struggling to find the right a/c unit for the space, and in a few days I hope to be writing away…

January 18, 2009

Easy to Miss

Category: Puerto Rico,Travel — Biella @ 6:41 am

calle-monjas, originally uploaded by the biella.

In the last 8 years, I have spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico and I always hit the Old City for some food, walking, music, and beautiful views. When walking around my favorite streets, I noticed for the first time the lovely tiling pictured above, which features 5 dancing nuns. Even though I have walked on this street probably hundreds of times, I have never noticed it until last trip.

While this is a very small detail there are many things one might overlook when visiting PR as they are not well known. One of the easiest things to miss is my favorite trail in the National rain forest, El Yunque, Tradewinds. It is easy to miss because it is not on the main road (It is on the closed service road, which you reach at the end of 191) and it is not mentioned very often in travel books and web pages. But if you are visiting El Yunque, I recommend the trail. It is as lovely as can be. Since it is not frequented very often, I would make sure to have a hiking buddy as it is easy to slip and fall (there is tons of mud). But do check it out if you visit the rain forest. It is really lovely.

October 7, 2007

Open another coffee shop in PR with free wireless, please

Category: Puerto Rico,Tech,Wireless — Biella @ 9:29 am

Somewhat unbelievably (to me at least) there is still wireless in my mother’s backyard and it has only gotten better and stronger. But let’s face it, writing in garden lounge chairs among the frogs, birds, sun, rain and wind are sub-optimum for thinking and writing, so I am always looking for good and, most especially, gratis wireless.

I was pretty psyched to find a new cafe, Camilles Cafe that had decent looking food and proudly advertises Free WiFi. So I went there this afternoon, ordered my cafe con leche, sat down, and ran dhlcient to get my IP address and it served me one in a jiffy. I opened my xchat, said hello to my fellow chatters, and then proceeded to login to my email and I never got further than that because they disabled access to any page that requires a password.

I went up to the counter to ask why and the answer I got was “porque un hacker nos ataco.” It is totally retarded that the can’t reenable whatever they turned off after adding some basic security measures. They are losing tons and mean tons of business. One quick visit to the “other” cafe down the street with free wireless Me. Starbucks shows there is much business to be made if you provide free wireless.

It is Sunday and there are 12 people here with computers and people of all stripes and backgrounds and they come because the wireless is cheap and fast.

Be warned: logging on to the wireless here is totally non-obvious. When you try to log in, you are routed to a corporate Centennial web page that asks for an user-id/password or asks you to create one. So you of course think that it will cost money to do so. But in fact you just create a name, password etc. and then the site never asks you for mullah (nice). There is no sign, instructions, giving you these instructions. You gotta know or you gotta ask one of your neighbors.

This odd system has been in place for years and I just wonder when the only free wireless in a coffee shop (at least that I know of) will be snatched away. Hopefully never and hopefully someone else will get the bright idea that if they open another coffee shop and also provide free wireless, they will make a killing. This place is always always, and I mean always, packed.

p.s.: make sure to bring headphones/music too unless you are great at working with plently of background noise, which includes the usual starbucks music (about as good as its coffee, not), people chatting, people video-chatting sans headphones, and people watching shows like South Park. It is downright cacophonous..

October 5, 2007

On Traveling, Airports, and Thinking

Category: Academic,Puerto Rico,Tech — Biella @ 8:00 am

After 6 weeks of teaching and over 2 months in my new apartment, I am making a short escape from NYC to visit my mom and sister in PR. In my Impacts of Technology class, we just finished a week on large-scale and complex technological systems, with a focus on industrial farming. We read a few sections of Micahel Pollan’s fanstastic book, The Ominvore’s Dilemma, which combines the odd qualities of being seductively alluring (thanks to his exquisite writing) and repulsive (thanks to the content, well at least the part on factory animal “farming”). I can’t recommend it enough and look forward to reading the rest, when I find the (magical) time to do so.

Now that I am at the airport, I am struck at how little I know about this place, which is also a large and complex technological system and I bet revealing its technological and cultural innards would provide as fascinating (although not quite as gross) of a story as that of factory animal farming.

There are many questions I would love answered: How exactly is coordination secured and what are the toughest elements to airport coordination? Where are the lines of cooperation and those of competition between airlines? What factors and values go into the design of the airport? (I know that for one thing, in American airports, there rarely seems to be enough electrical jacks; I am now sitting under the telephones, the only place with jacks in terminal 8 at JFK, and the funny thing is that there are a row of 7 unused phones and only one jack and I am sure it would be more useful to have 1 pay phone and a row of 7 jacks, instead). What sorts of airport technologies have put people out of jobs? What technologies have created new job opportunities? What sorts of social hierarchies are there in airports? Like who runs the big show? Is it a CEO? Or is something more like a university provost? What is standardized by the FAA, and what elements are more flexible, and thus different airport to airport? Is there a sense of camaraderie among airport employees, or are loyalties built primarily among employees of one airline or among the classes of workers? Given that unions are quite strong among airport employees and from the top (pilots) down (food workers), what is the political culture of airports/employees like? (I remember once overhearing a group of machinist and ground crew talking about the ugly face of globalization and NAFTA over coffee and I was dumbfounded and pretty psyched too). Are airports one of the few last remaining places in th US that provides for decent job security? Why do so many of the ground crew have such athletic, bulging calves? :-) Is it a result of the physical demands of the job? Or is it that the type of job (“outdoors” with lots of heavy lifting), attract the athletic types? Do they have to pass certain physical standards as to pilots? Was there always first class seats? Or did that come about when flying became cheaper? Are employees trained to deal with irate passengers? In what ways do pilots bitch about the long waits/delays they also have to endure? What can they do when they are waiting, as we did for an hour last night, during the massive traffic jams that are especially noxious in NYC-area airports? Do pilots have any say in the way airports are run? Why do they consistently provide less chairs than are needed in lounges, even in new terminals, as the one I was in tonight? Do air traffic controllers ever meet face-to-face with pilots or do they largely have a virtual relationship? Are programmers who patch, improve, and build traffic control systems housed in the airports, or elsewhere?

Airports are not only fascinating for technological and sociological reasons but I reckon there is a lot of interesting psychological work that must happen in airports. I imagine that during those long, endless waits in the lounge, on the security lines, on the tarmac, people must often take the time to reflect, on where am I going, where am I coming from, and not in the literal sense but the metaphorical one. I know that I have spent many hours in airports letting my mind wander to places and thoughts in ways that don’t happen as easily or often elsewhere. And in many instances, I don’t think that this propensity to indulge in some reflective thinking, is a matter of time, that is waiting. For me at least, it is the fact that many times when I fly, I am moving between worlds.

While I have flown hundreds of times, I never have been shed of the sense of awe I feel about planes and their ability to shrink space and time so quickly. For me, it is less the act of flying itself (that feels boring, tiring, annoying, mostly because of the insane waits and delays and I never seem to get the right amount of sleep the night before) but the visceral contrast it brings. In the morning my life is of a particular tone and rhythm, currently situated in NYC and by evening, I am back at home in PR, surrounded by thick humidity and the loud sound of coquis. Once there, my as currently configured in NYC, has little direct bearing to those around me. Planes don’t just transport, they shift and convert your inner and outer world…

So, if anyone (who got this far) knows of a good social history of the airport, do tell. I would love to read it.

August 3, 2007

Puerto Rican Folk Music

Category: Music,Puerto Rico,Tech — Biella @ 12:30 pm

The downside of NYC is that it is pricey but the upside is that there are a lot of free events to balance out the equation. Last night, I went to one of such free events at Lincoln center to see one of my favorite Puerto Rican folk singers, Roy Brown who was opening for Arlo Guthrie

During Roy Brown’s last song, he called out another folk singer who I had never heard of Tao Rodriguez-Seeger to join him and I think that was probably one of my favorite songs of the night.

Tao who comes from a family of folk singer types, usually performs with The Mammals and less frequently with The Anarchist Orchestra.

His voice, at least in Spanish, is resounding and overpowering yet at the same time sports a certain type of gentle softness. It is striking and beautiful. If you like folk music, in English or Spanish, I would check him out. Here is a clip of a song recorded with Tito Auger and Roy Brown and a link to their recent complilation CD.