Saturday, November 05, 2011

Crouching Typist, Hidden Toddler

It's 10 p.m. on NaNoWriMo Day 5, my word count is 8,398, and I am On Pace! NaNo's goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, or an average of 1,667 words per day. That means 8,335 words in five days.

I've just squeezed by that total, by a margin of 63 words.

Earlier Mary and I took our two-mile round-trip post office walk, which is significant because this is her first big walk since her toe surgery eight days ago. She had "mummified" her toe (her word) in bandages, but was able to wear a closed shoe. These past couple of days she's left the bandages off, to let the wound breathe.

She had suggested the walk, which meant I had to tear myself away from the computer. That's a good thing -- I'd just written a section and my brain felt like mush. But I didn't wanna go!

As she started suiting up to head outside a thought struck me. "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait." I sprinted back to the studio, woke my computer up, and clicked on my OneNote page where I write reminders to myself. I had just drafted a piece about the "Serengeti Live" project. They've been doing things in Tanzania. They've got 230 camera traps taking millions of photos of big cats and other predators, like the hyenas that ate the cameras before the project got new cameras in heavy steel housing. (Want to read some fabulous adventure writing? Go see field researcher Ali Swanson's blog.)

I'd just bridged that project with another one working with camera traps -- only, that project, Eric Abelson's "Does the act of looking change what we see?", is investigating whether camera traps alter the behavior of the animals whose images they're trying to capture. Like nervous mule deer.

I don't look at the #SciFund projects as separate entities. I look for what connects them, common themes, the way one can look at the same thing from different angles. "Serengeti Live" is raising funds to establish a remote Internet connection so that photos of wildlife can be viewed in as close to realtime as possible, without the long waits for data to be loaded into flash drives, spirited out of the Serengeti, and carried back to the States by a friend or a colleague who just happens to be traveling on a plane that day. They need better data management to help them in their work toward better conservation and wildlife management. Just as Abelson's work is also geared toward better conservation and wildlife management, because how can you accurately count animals if they're fleeing camera traps that might emit electronic signals humans can't perceive?

But I was thinking about Tanzania. The "Smart Delivery" project was also in Tanzania, right?

Open my Access file. Click on the link. Watch the Web page pop up. Shout, "Yes!" Scribble another note to myself. Send the computer back into sleep mode. Emerge from my studio grinning like a fool.

Mary asked me, "What was that all about?"

I explained as we walked toward the post office. Jennifer Schmitt's "Smart Delivery" project hopes to be a far more efficient, far less costly way to deliver childhood vaccines to Tanzania's most remote villages. Not by using the traditional delivery trucks the nonprofits use, but by letting small coolers of vaccines hitchhike rides in backpacks, on mules, in car trunks, with Tanzania's people who are on the move and going in that direction anyway. The big nonprofit trucks get sent out irregularly because they're dependent on outside funding, and they are no match for rutted, washed-out roads. But Tanzania's citizens deal daily with that terrain. They know how to move on it. And they carry cell phones.

I wouldn't learn this until after we got home, but Tanzania is awash in cell phones. According to this 2005 BBC article by Simon Hancock, "Some 97 percent of Tanzanians say they can access a mobile phone." And the cell phone networks are everywhere, ranging out into the remotest villages and onto the slopes of Kilimanjaro. Cell phones are how Tanzania -- and the rest of Africa -- have been closing the digital divide.

Now, six years after that article appeared, Schmitt's project wants to use that home-grown network and hire Tanzania's people to deliver vaccines as they traverse their regular routes.

I couldn't help but imagine two people experiencing a chance encounter on a remote dirt road. One carries childhood vaccines to a tiny Tanzanian village. The other has a pocket full of flash drives holding images pulled from camera traps in the Serengeti.

(Though ideally the "Serengeti Live" Internet connection would be up and running by then.)

Out on our residential neighborhood street, Mary asked me, "How is this pace for you?"

I said, "I'm fine. Keep to what you're comfortable with." I thought, You're healing from toe surgery, for heaven's sake! I don't want you to fall! while my inner toddler wanted to grab and drag her by the hand, chanting Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

We took our time. We breathed in fresh, crisp air -- a little too crisp for Mary, who wished she'd worn a scarf against the wind. We admired the oranges on a neighbor's tree. We watched a pink sunset.

Mary, who was starting to feel tired, asked me if my energy level was okay.

"I'm full of adrenalin," I told her. "I'm a three year old right now."

She downed a Power Bar at the post office. We had dinner at Hungry Howie's -- antipasto for her, chicken salad for me. Popped into Winn-Dixie because I was about to run out of coffee. Inside I was jumping up and down, up and down, up and down.

And then we got home, and I all but careened toward the studio.

Elissa Malcohn's Deviations and Other Journeys
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