Philip Greenspun 2003, Go Read Him.

Flying the Caribbean is exactly the kind of long form writing I love on the web, as I said last month.

Philip Greenspun is great. I got to see him give his Web Tech Talk at CalTech in 1999. That was also the first time I got blogged about, by Matt Haughey. I met him then. Philip was a great speaker, and I’m glad to see he’s writing a new book.

There’s a lot of good stuff in Flying the Caribbean. Rants. Musings. Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

On Puerto Rico’s place vis-a-vis the USA

Puerto Rico is interesting politically. The island is home to 4 million American citizens who don’t pay federal income tax, aren’t represented in Congress, and don’t vote for president. Most of the Puerto Ricans whom I encountered were against statehood on pragmatic grounds. They get nearly all of the benefits that any American might get from the federal government, including welfare for mothers and children, defense, flight service, air traffic control, etc., but they don’t have to pay for these benefits.

On racial tensions in the Virgin Islands

There is a fair amount of racial tension in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Basically this is a Third World country where if you’re part of the ruling oligarchy you can make huge bucks through connections and kickbacks. If you’re not born into the right family, however, you must choose between low-paying service jobs and emigration. The ruling oligarchs, like most of the natives, are black. The tourists and the rich expats are mostly white. This leads to occasional conflict. For example, it is actually illegal to walk around “downtown” streets wearing a bathing suit top and the police ticket the cruise ship passengers who aren’t aware of this rule. As one local put it “there is nothing that black policemen like more than giving tickets to white people.”

Tapwater in the Carribean

It is generally unsafe to drink tapwater in the Caribbean. An island may appear to be a pristine desert. How could the well water be unsafe? It isn’t well water. The only water available is probably rainwater that is collected in a cistern and left to stew in its own bacterial soup for a few weeks. Of the places covered in this guide Puerto Rico probably has the safest tapwater and the Dominican Republic the most lethal.

American influence leads to crime

Property and violent crime against tourists does exist, however, and as usual the United States is the leader. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix are renowned for crime. Barred windows and private security guards are common throughout Puerto Rico but you probably won’t feel unsafe because there are always a lot of (very helpful) police around the tourist areas. “Crime got a lot worse in the 1950s when the U.S. government started handing out food stamps,” a local explained. “People on farms in the countryside weren’t stupid and they figured out that they could make more by not working. So they stopped working, we began to import all of our food from Florida, and the kids grew up without ever seeing a working adult. Now a lot of them are criminals.”

Alcohol and Expatriates

You’ll meet a lot of Americans and Europeans who spend 6-12 months per year in the Caribbean and want you to agree with them that a slow-paced rum-soaked life in the islands is superior to life in the city. If you’re drinking Diet Coke they take this as an implicit criticism of their lifestyle and get offended enough to fairly demand that you consume.

Island Life vs. City Life

In theory the cities of North America offer the opportunity to socialize a lot of fascinating people, to learn new ideas and skills, to appreciate art and entertainment, and to have challenging and rewarding work. In practice it seems that crowding and high real estate prices force most citizens into working 60-hour weeks so that they can meet their mortgage and SUV payments. In theory it should be possible for Joe Wornout to back down to a shabby apartment and a used Honda Civic and change to a lower pressure job. In practice it does not seem to be socially sanctioned among the high-achievers of New York or Toronto or wherever. So Joe Wornout opens a restaurant on a small island and works moderately hard during tourist season but not at all the rest of the year. Joe is relaxed and constantly exposed to natural beauty and the sea but he is now missing out on everything good that the city had to offer.

I’ve quoted quite a lot of this stuff. It’s definitely at the upper bounds of “fair use” – but I feel like I really want to encourage you, dear reader, to go read some Phil Greenspun. Go read it all. Then go to explore Greenspun’s whole site. If anyone can be considered a model for my own experimentation and thoughts on how to put together a personal site, it’s Greenspun. Greenspun has been accused of being an egoiste and of being insensitive in his use of metaphors, and more. Bottom line: he thinks deeply, and I admire him.

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