Anirvan Chatterjee: April 2009 Archives

I'm reading Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure by Alastair Gordon. As Gordon discusses about the expansion of early American aviation businesses into Latin America, he quotes early Pan Am exec Sanford Kauffman on his experiences working in Honduras:

"Kauffman had been at his post for only a few weeks when a revolution broke out in Honduras. Rebels were flying old biplanes and dropping bombs onto his airfield. Kauffman telegraphed Miami headquarters and informed his superiors that PAA [Pan America Airways] planes should not attempt to land but should fly directly on to San Salvador. When the local manager of the United Fruit Company inquired why the mail plane hadn't arrived that day, Kauffman told him about the aerial bombardment. The manager replied: 'Why didn't you come in and let me know? We're controlling the revolution, and I'll simply tell them to stop bombing you.' United Fruit had put the president into power in the first place, but when the president hiked the tax on bananas, the company thought it best to have him replaced. 'There's a general who would love to be president,' explain the agent, 'so we're supplying him with funds to buy ammunition and equipment, [and] he'll be the next one.' Kauffman got the message and reopened the airport the next day."

There's more discussion of this fun little corporate imperial anecdote in Kauffman's book, Pan Am Pioneer, in the "Stationed In Honduras" chapter.

Microsopic view of smallpox

Image via Wikipedia

Apparently, some conservative commentators are worried that swine flu may have made its way to the US due to movement by undocumented Mexican immigrants. For once, they're right.

Well, maybe not strictly right, in this specific case, given that a significant number of cases in the US involve vacationing presumably-documented Americans.

But our nativists certainly have the right historical instincts, recalling as they do how undocumented immigrants accidentally brought epidemic disease to the Americas, causing the deaths of millions of previously-unexposed non-resistant indigenous people.

And when out nativists put forth the theory that swine flu is being secretly spread by Al Qaeda, they're remembering the stories of deliberate infection of Native Americans. (Which, it turns out, was a very limited cause, if at all, compared to the larger story. But who knows--maybe the baddies are responsible this time.)

Who says we've lost our sense of historical memory?

l've been enjoying playing with GeoPlanet, a free RESTful geography data API provided by Yahoo's Geo Technologies group. GeoPlanet issues WOEIDs ("Where on Earth IDs"), unique identifiers for place, ranging from plazas, up to to neighborhoods, districts, cities, counties, states, and nations. WOEIDs are intelligently linked up, so you can programmatically navigate between parent, child, and adjoining places. It deals well with ambiguity, and it's really nicely internationalized, both in terms of input and output. You can feed it free text (e.g. "Berkeley, California") and get back a ranked series of best-matches, along with latitude/longitude, bounding box, parent areas, and human-readable names.

There's a great interview with one of GeoPlanet's developers at O'Reilly Radar:

"[U]sually...geography is handled as a purely spatial problem. What I mean by that is that things are handled in longitude and latitudes. And traditionally, if you have a place such as a city or town which is polygonal on the map, it's usually boiled down to a centroid, which again is a coordinate pair. And then all of the questions relate to the coordinate pair...instead of taking a spatially-based approach to location, we take a place-based approach...It could be a park. It could be a region like the Pacific Northwest. It could be a continent and even the earth is a named place....we take all of these different names places and all of these different granularities and we give them unique identifiers called Where On Earth ids or WOE ids for short...

So coming back to the point about really open location, one of the goals that we want here is that we want to be able to ensure that we can all...refer unambiguously to the same place no matter how it's called. So the United States is the United States or it's USA. Or it's Les Etats Unis. All of the different labels are assigned with the same Where On Earth identifier. And it's really exposing that identifier out is we think the prime benefit...We won't tell you everything about them or their census statistics or the population. It's really, "Here's the identifier. This is where it can be found. And this is how this identifier relates to other identifiers." (more...)

Yahoo's work around developing interesting open platforms is totally underhyped. I'm ready to consider locking myself into Yahoo's WOEID system in my own apps; it's rich and open enough for my needs.

I recently launched a new web tool called DesiFilter.

Like a lot of folks from immigrant communities, I tend to be hyper-aware of names from my culture. If I'm watching a movie, part of my brain goes "hey, wow!" when I see that the gaffer's backup caterer is named Banerjee or Patel or Khan.

DesiFilter sample results

South Asian American community journalists and bloggers will regularly do the same--scanning long lists of names to find community members involved in larger news stories. So I built a tool to help out, based on a list of over 26,000 uniquely South Asian first and last names I collected and hand-edited. (The word "Desi" is often used interchangeably with South Asian in diaspora.)

You just give DesiFIlter a URL or a bunch of text, and it'll find and highlight possible South Asian names. Commercial name ethnicity matching tools have been around for a while, and are used for things like targeted marketing and political campaigning. I believe this is the first such tool that handles South Asian names that's freely available to the public.

It wasn't particularly hard to build; the tech side (powered by Perl's Regexp::Assemble) was a breeze compared to the difficult task of collecting and refining name lists. South Asian names come from all over, so I ended up making a lot of awkward decisions to maximize usability in majority-Anglo countries, including throwing out most Anglo and many Portuguese names common in South Asia to minimize false positives. This means, for example, that it'll fail to identify John Abraham as a South Asian name. Short of a hard-to-build-and-visualize system of weights, I can't think of a much better solution.

DesiFilter got some big love on Sepia Mutiny. I'm currently working on some features to make it more useful to the folks over at the South Asian Journalists Association.

NY Times immigration and jobs explorer map

I've been enjoying playing with "Immigration and Jobs: Where U.S. Workers Come From," an interactive feature in The New York Times, based on the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. It lets you select countries of birth and see the most common occupations for those immigrants, or choose occupations, and see which country's immigrants have the highest numbers in that sector.

I was particularly interested in seeing what professions are overwhelmingly and uniquely linked to certain national origins--a function of immigration trends, labor markets, geography, and chance. These included:

  • Mexico: sales-related professions; clerical and administrative staff; policemen and other protective workers; most hospitality, maintenance, and personal service professions; all construction, manufacturing, and other labor
  • Philippines: nurses
  • India: computer software developers, doctors
  • Vietnam: hairdressers

Some breakdowns by occupation...

Top origins of foreign-born managers and administrators

  1. Mexico
  2. India
  3. Britain
  4. Canada
  5. Germany

Top origins of foreign-born accountants and other financial specialists

  1. Philippines
  2. China
  3. India
  4. Mexico
  5. North and South Korea

Top origins of foreign-born hairdressers and other grooming services

  1. Vietnam
  2. Mexico
  3. North and South Korea
  4. Dominican Republic
  5. China

And some breakdowns by country of birth...

Top 5 occupations for those born in India

  1. Computer software developers
  2. Managers and administrators
  3. Scientists and quantitative analysts
  4. Sales-related occupations
  5. Engineers and architects

Top 5 occupations for those born in Germany

  1. Clerical and administrative staff
  2. Managers and administrators
  3. Sales-related occupations
  4. Teachers
  5. Mechanics and equipment repairers

Top 5 occupations for those born in Mexico

  1. Skilled construction workers
  2. Industrial equipment operators
  3. Cooks and other food preparers
  4. Construction laborers
  5. Clerical and administrative staff

More at The New York Times interactive tool.

(via Partha S. Banerjee)

I was looking at my ballot for the 2009 election for members of the board of Amnesty International USA, and was surprised to see that 5 of the 12 candidates had South Asian names:

There's still a large enough disconnect between mainstream South Asian communities and mainstream social justice movements that stuff like this brings a smile to my face.

The East Bay Express ran a great story on Berkeley's graffiti wars last week, exposing a secret conflict over public space that's been going on under our noses.

We know Berkeley's home to graffiti, stickers, and tags. But the Express outed a fascinatingly weird new figure in the mix: Jim Sharp, a.k.a SIlver Buff, a 62 year old man who goes around spraying silver paint over unwanted graffiti, stickers, and tags--increasing the amount of vandalized property, and spurring on counter-attacks. Sharp is an active member of the Berkeley community, and appears to be involved with a variety of local preservationist / anti-development causes. Suddenly, the presence of all that crazy silver paint I've been seeing around town makes sense.

Sharp's identity was discovered by Nathan Wollman and Max Good, the makers of Vigilante Vigilante, an upcoming PBS documentary on Berkeley's graffiti wars, in a tremendous piece of local detective work reported on in the article.


I have complicated feelings about graffiti and stickering. I love discovering unexpected underground art around town. It makes me pause and reflect, and helps me connect to what folks around town and thinking and feeling. The downside, of course, is the unauthorized takeover of public and private space. And for that matter, ugly graffiti or graffiti that's particularly disrespectful of others just pisses me off (most tagging falls in this category for me). I don't know that I can easily reconcile these two tendencies, but I won't apologize for appreciating good street art.

Life is easier when, like Jim Sharp, you can turn those grays into stark black and white. I don't know that I have an answer to urban visual pollution, but I'm pretty sure anti-graffiti vigilante vandalism isn't part of it.

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Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by Anirvan Chatterjee in April 2009.

Anirvan Chatterjee: March 2009 is the previous archive.

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