Monday, December 31, 2007

What I Got For Christmas

Apart from sunrise, sunset is my favorite time of day. So as I sit on the porch of the medical clinic, waiting the thirty minutes for my Malaria test results to come back, I enjoy streaks of the day's waning light against the passers by. The busy dirt street this evening is for me ubiquitously Ugandan, with its boda bodas zipping to and fro, men and women carrying their loads, and children everywhere playing.

Paraphrasing my computer dictionary, Malaria is defined as an intermittent and remittent fever caused by a protozoan parasite that invades the red blood cells. The parasite, transmitted by mosquitoes, is found in many tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world, including Uganda. The name Malaria originally comes from the 18th century Italian term "mala aria," which referred to the 'bad air' caused by fumes promulgating from marshlands. These fumes were originally thought to be the cause of the illness we now call Malaria.

As I sit watching people pass by I reflect on the consequences of my test results. Oddly, I'm split between which fate is better. The obvious downside of having Malaria is, of course, that you have malaria, and will always have it. On the other hand, I will also get drugs that should swiftly relieve my symptoms. If I don't have it I'll have to wait out my time in purgatory without a clear idea of what my ailment is or when my fever will end. On top of this is the added shame in coming to the clinic without the vindication of a serious illness; "No, it's not Malaria you Mzungu weakling." In any case, I had already managed to coach my football team throughout the entire weekend with the same sickness. Wouldn't Malaria have prohibited that?

While I wait two, toddlers approach me from next door. Even within the incredibly cute demographic of young Ugandan childrenin these two rank among the top decile. One of them, the older girl, is an institution on the block and regular instigator of the ever-popular "Mzungu, how are you" chant/singalong. Her bright eyes and excited smile are irresistible, and if it weren’t for the 20 plus year age difference between us (me being 24, she being around 4)I think I would have a serious crush on her. The other, I assume her slightly younger brother, shares her wide-eyed expression of continual awe and amusement. Together, Spik and Span converse with me, me reciting small words and phrases and them shouting incomprehensible commands at me in baby-talk Luganda. Behind me another adult patient laughs at our babelian discourse. Seemingly satisfied with talking, the younger brother begins to strip off his clothing, one article at a time (incidentally, he is only wearing a shirt and pants). First comes his shirt, which for a while stops to serve as a sort of turban as it makes its way over his head. When it finally does come off it transforms into a "terrible towel," swung around the head and against the ground for added emphasis. Incredibly amused but slightly embarrassed I chuckle to myself as I make continual side-long glances at the little sideshow act beside me. The older sister, not one to be left out as she observes both her younger brother and my reactions, raises her shirt to simultaneously reveal her full tummy and shield the bottom half of her face. Obviously inspired by my reaction, the boy proceeds to drop his shorts for his mixed audience of fellow toddlers, clinic patients and passersby on the street. I cannot contain myself, and my chuckle boils over into a full-on laugh, which reinforces the laughs of the fellow patients on the waitingroom-porch and the antics of the two kids. I laugh and laugh until I'm crying, the tears streaming down my face. And I welcomed the laughter of others around me. Together we enjoyed the ridiculous of everything.

My diagnosis, when it came, was both a relief and a sobering experience.
"Yes, you have Malaria."
"I do?"
"You even have Malaria plus."
"Malaria plus? What’s that?"
"You have Malaria plus more Malaria."
"Malaria plus more Malaria?"
"Yes. But, you will be ok because you will take this medicine."

Without a clear explanation of what this diagnosis signified, I eventually took it to mean that in fact I had been infected by more than one strain of Malaria. The treatment, apparently, is the following:

Metakelfin 500 mg, two tabs once after dinner the first night
Ciprofloxacin 500 mg, one tab twice a day 12 hours apart (morning and evening)
Various painkillers, multiple times a day
In addition I am continuing to take the weekly Larium dosage I got in the States.

I remember the first time the reality of the possibility of getting Malaria struck me. It was last spring while I was reading the blog of a Danish UN worker stationed in Uganda. Her account of getting the parasite, and especially her account of having dealing with reactions to having it hit home the reality of getting it. I think in part it was because I was reading her accounts at practically the same time that she was experiencing what she was writing about. Somehow the relationship between experience and account affected my interpretation of its consequences on me. It's not the first time blogging has had this impact on me, and in fact I think it is part of the reason why I find the medium so interesting. Real people wil real problems writing in nearly real-time.

Every time I get the feeling that Malaria isn’t so bad, Malaria seems to want to remind me of itself in yet another way. Yesterday it was my skin's hypersensitivity. Today it's stomach pains and diarrhea. Luckily, I have companions close by, some of whom have already experienced Malaria and even one who was diagnosed with it for the first time a day before me (Ian for those of you who'd like to know). I'm glad that I'm sick here, where Malaria is as much a part of life as chickenpox is back home. Still, I hope that this isn't the type of Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas and Conservation

Today actually seems quite festive here, with Christmas music and decorations abounding. Unfortunately, my mood at the internet cafe isn't as festive due to the poor connection speed.

Several factors, including the nature of consumerism and consumption here, the book I'm reading (Thoreaux's Walden) and news about local and national environmental events back home, have got me thinking about what it means to live an environmentally aware lifestyle. On the one hand some things, like energy consumption, are easy to mitigate here, where both infrastructure and money are lacking. On the other hand some things, like physical waste and sewage, are a nightmare. It's fascinating how social perception and the status quo can be so different between communities. Here, using a fraction of the power and water we use in the States goes hand in hand with littering any time, anywhere. Both take place on levels unthinkable in the U.S. How can it be so difficult to have Americans change thier lightbulbs (and save money in the process!), while flourescents are nearly universal here? Why is the recent decision to place 500 garbage bins (probably the first ever) on Kampala street corners need be such a newsworthy achievement? Public attitude has a lot to do with it, and its one of the reasons why we should pay more attention to changing public perception about conservation in the U.S. (which, I will add, isn't to say we need to shove environmentalism down everyone's throat. There are enough reasons to conserve besides the environmental benefit. Let's think pragmatically).

I'm not entirely sure why I felt this was a good Christmas topic, but given the stark difference between the American Xmas consumer-fest (of which I normally and happily take part in) and the Ugandan version, I thought the reflection appropriate.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Witchcraft

Over the last few weeks I've become introduced, through clips and snippets of conversations, to the topic of witchfract in Uganda and Africa. I've yet to watch the video Big gave me on the subject, but he swears by all that is good that it will convince me of their powers. For instance, apparently there is a way to tunnel underground or under water to attain great material wealth and riches. This explains how some Africans become rich without seeming to earn money working.

Today Big's stories of witchcraft were corroborated by Steve and Frank, two other players on the football team I coach. They say that the power witch doctors wield in African is large, and that there are many witch doctors in Uganda and even in Kawempe, where I stay. They say that some of these witch doctores are pastors by day, although from my talk with them it seemed liek for the most part witch doctors are scorned by church-goers. Interestingly, many Christians in Uganda believe that these traditional withc doctors do the work of Satan, which seems to have the effect of legitimizing their power and authority within the community. Steve said that he spoke with his pastor about witch doctors, and was told that they worked for the devil, who had more influence on earth than God.

Steve and Frank have also informed me that rumor has it Didier Drogba, Chelsea's star Cote d'Ivoire striker, gained his power from witchcraft. This is meant to explain his rise to fame, as well as his teammate's, Ukranian striker Andreav Schevchenko, lack-luster performance at Chelsea after he was traded from A.C. Milan. Ditto goes for the Argentinian Hernan Crespo. When I asked why the Drogba-initiated curse haven't affected Chelsea midfielder Michael Essian (from Ghana), Steve reported that it was much more difficult to cure and African.

In general I've found superstition in Uganda a very real, if suble, part of everyday life, ranging from neighbors hexing "possessed" dogs to curses in children's games.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ugandan Top Ten

My top ten favorites so far in Uganda:

#10) Hanging out on my front porch listening to the BBC.

#9) Watching the Kawempe street traffic from the third floor internet cafe terrace.

#8) Playing Scrabble with the boys on my soccer team.

#7) Watching the fire flies on the path to my house at dusk.

#6) Rolexes/Kikommandos.

#5) Sunday brunch at 1,000 Cup coffee shop in Kampala.

#4) Sipping a Nile Special with the locals at Twins' Bar.

#3) Riding the ferry from Kalangala to Entebbe on lake Victoria.

#2) Eating the "local food" dish (beans/peas, rice, corn posho, banana, casava and sweet potato).

#1) Surprising happy Ugandans with my basic Luganda language knowledge.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

TASAAAGA Update

NOTE: This should be up on my website but because I'm having problems accessing it right now I thought I'd put it here and link to it later.

The team that has been called the TASAAGA Football Club informally for the past two months since its formation now has an official name: Christian Alexander Football Club. I wasn't initially happy with the choice, but I've since been convinced that it was the players' decision and one of the only ways in which they could repay me for the work and resources I've put in to make the club a reality. Of course I've tried to make them realize that it wasn't just me who made this happen, but also everyone who has helped me get here and do this work. In the end however I had to accept the name. We have registered for our first tournament, the Ogonto Co-operative Tournament, and will be competing with 15 other teams for the top prizes: a bull for first place and a goat for second. Our first game was a draw after an unfortunate late minute equalizer by the opposing team. Unhappily, I was away at Lake Victoria and missed the first match, but am excited to see us again in action next week. We are also working to get the team registered with the national Ugandan league in the 2nd division.

Classes for the kids have also begun, and I'm excited about their current enthusiasm and alittle nervous about meeting their expectations. The real trick is to keep the topics interesting enough to get them to come back, analytical enough to satisfy my own standards, and practical enough to be of some use to them. So far I think I've done a good enough job, but I'm going to have to continue to put work in if I hope to accomplish everything I'd like to.

I've definitely felt a tinge of homesickness during the past week or two. I expect this is natural, and so instead of suppressing it I've simply worked to keep the daydreaming positive and avoid it from clouding my experience here.

It was great to see Jay, a college buddy, drop in from Jo-berg for the weekend. I'm looking forward to seeing Ian when he comes up here soon.

Sun Power on Lake Victoria

Of all the curious comparisons one could make between Uganda and the US, I think that it is those things here that most imitate what I wish were true at home that I find the most interesting. An example demonstrates how Africa influences my ideas about my utopian America.

This week I graveled to the Sesse Islands, located on Lake Victoria. The islands are located fairly near to Entebbe, and hold some of the most beautiful sceneries I've yet found in Uganda. The islands are responsible for their own electricity, and as such have found solar power to be one of the most cost effective ways of making this happen. Throughout the villages and local hotels in the Kalangala district, where I was staying, one could find solar panels on rooftops and makeshift stands quite easily. A local store in town catered to the solar market, and the town even had an internet cafe that used solar power.

Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to speak with either the solar store owner or his clients about the details of the industry there. Still, it blows my mind that one of the most powerful sources of energy we have is being put to better use here than in most places back home. Of course they also use less energy here in general, something we would also do well to imitate. Like most Americans, I wouldn't choose to live using as little power as Ugandans do, but living here does definitely help put into perspective what aspects of our lifestyle are complete wastes of energy.

My interest with cost effective renewable energy may lead me back down there again to do a little more research. I imagine that we may have something to learn from them, for in a land where wealth and resources are severely limited a necessity is put on being efficient.

Pictures should be here, but I'm having trouble uploading them right now. They should be up later.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Slowly, Slowly

The places: Home, the office, the youth center, the soccer pitch. Kawempe stage, “downtown,” Sitebale, the hilltop.

The people: Bruhan, Big, Violet, Moses, Rashida, Kayanja John, Patience, Roy, Stevie, Franka, Max. Of course there’s also Sarah, the “kazungu.”



Slowly the list of names and places grow as the number of days here lengthen. First a small number of names for a large number of faces. “Slowly, slowly,” as my assistant coach Kayanja John says, I learn to familiarize the faces and identify the places. Slowly, slowly, I put together the rhythm of my life here. Nothing is on time, especially me. Yes, there is an internet café a ten minute’s walk from my house. No, most of the time I’m not able to do much besides check my mail before the power goes out (or even if it doesn’t, before I’ve spent two hours watching my time run down and the page fail to load yet again). Yes, I feel exhausted at the end of each day. No, actually I can’t exactly say that I accomplished much in that day. Maybe I did do something, in between all the walking and waiting and explaining and trying to understand. I’m sure of it, actually, but what exactly is sometimes hard to say.

To the Sesse Islands this week. Lake Victoria is amazing; this weekend while I was there all I could do was day dream about owning a small home on its shores. I wonder what the real estate laws are here.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Many Things At Once, The News Hardly At All

Out of the maze of topics I could write about I'm choosing a few quick ones based mostly on whim.

David Weinberger's recent article on Facebook advertisement defaults. It's an insidious plan to be sure, but what would you expect from a profit-driven business? Also, Facebook on the users' side? I guess so, although not by default but rather by necessity. If it hadn't been for a major outcry from users a few years back the Facebook wall would have still told all.

Howard French's New York Times letter from China was interesting in its attempt to discuss what modernity means to the Chinese. It's actually funny how China is attempting a cookie-cutter approach to traditional Western modernization, complete with a World's Fair (so turn of the last century, no?) and an Olympics.

Protests in Tehran, and a rebuke of Ahmadinejad by a prominent conservative Iranian newspaper trickled down to me, but I've yet to read up on them.

News here comes mainly in the form of the BBC Radio station I listen to at home. Internet is slow and unpredictable, and international papers are available only in Kampala (at a little oasis of bourgeois luxury called "Thousand Cups Coffee House"). Life here is sinking into some form of regularity, which is welcome after a month and a half of seeming un-ending transition. A college friend will visit this weekend, and another may come next month, which will be sure to spice up my life a little.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Teaching and Learning

As of last week I live in Kawempe, Uganda. I work as a soccer coach and youth coordinator. That means lots of things. I teach kids soccer. I teach kids English. I teach my assistant coach English. I try to learn Luganda: Oliyotya Sebo! Nzay Christian. Ellinyalyo qwani? Webale nyo! Welaba!

There's no set learning time, and there is no designated teaching time. Most often someone will tell me when I should start teaching or learning. Many times I'm learning just by being here. Some of the most important things I've learned I had never thought about learning before: How to live without electricity (some of the time) or running water (all of the time). How to find my home. How to communicate non-verbally. How to speak English with a Ugandan accent (I want wha-tuh). How to stay (relatively) clean.

I'm even relearning old things, like soccer. More specifically, I'm learning to coach. I'm learning tactics, practice drills. I'm learning how to manage a bunch of teenagers with a whistle. Being a mzungu (white man) helps, because they are already interested in everything I do, every gesture, every word.

Of course most of what I do is bluff. Bluffing is necessary when experience is lacking. Do I know what I'm doing half the time? (No.) Does it matter, as long as people have confidence in me? (Again, no.) I teach and I coach as best I can, without much experience at either. So far it seems to be working. Gradually, I plan to replace some of that bluffing with experience, both as a teacher- of soccer/English/life- and as a student- of Uganda/Luganda/life.

I think this is how life works. Please, correct me if I'm wrong.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Finally

I'll start by saying that the 50 or so hours in transit from Ari's in Chennai to Kampala Uganda were some of the most harrowing of the trip. For instance, accidentally throwing away my passport in Ari's garbage and not realizing it until I had arrived at the airport to depart was a classic "Bohn" moment. Luckily, thanks to the regularity of flight delays in that country, my hour-long taxi ride to Ari's and back did not make me miss my flight. No thanks, however, to the Indian taxi driver who did everything in his capacity to extend my stay in Chennai (and then ask for a tip). Little did I know that I would be spending that night in the Mumbai airport (arriving at midnight, taking off at nine), rated one of the worst airports to sleep in by sleepinginairports.com (earlier Bankok entry now posted there). Let me say that I completely agree with this evaluation: Never, NEVER stay overnight in the Mumbai airport if you can help it.

Oddly, thankfully, it was a (literal) breath of fresh air landing in Nairobi. "Nairobbery" has a terrible reputation, but we found it temperate, sunny, and relaxed compared to the craziness of India. The 12 hour bus ride to Kampala however clearly demonstrated the lack of infrastructure (exampled here in the "off-road" roads) in Africa, even when compared to India. I spent the first 20 minutes of this ride thinking of apt anologies (examples: world's worst roller-coaster ride, a U.S. "shock and awe" military campaign, riding the end of a buzz saw, driving up my Santa Fe washboard driveway one million times in a row), and the other 11 1/2 hours hating myself for not flying.

We are now safely in Kawempe, a suburb of Kampala, working for an organization called TASAAGA (more on this later). Apologies for the brevity and vagueness of this post.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Rule of Necessity

It's true that I've only been in India for about a week, but already I feel that I'm making headway in terms of understanding the lifestyle and rhythm here. In Shantaram, the novel set in India that I'm currently reading, the author/protagonist describes Indian life as dictated by necessity, and I'm beginning to like that definition more and more.



A perfect example of this phenomenon is the traffic in the cities. The laws and standard conventions that dictate driving habits back home are alien to the whole enterprise here. In fact I think that the American philosophy of driving, if used here, would put a driver at considerable danger. Even the most hectic of U.S. roadways, found in places like Manhattan, Jersey City, and Californian interstates never approach the madness of Indian cities. Buses cars, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, ox-driven carts and pedestrians all converge into a maddening heap. Lanes, if painted on the roads at all, only seem to invite the mockery of the auto-rickshaw drivers as they straddle them in an attempt to circumnavigate obstacles. It truly seems as if the only rule is that they are no rules and that arriving at one's destination by the quickest route justifies the means by which it was done. However, in truth there are unwritten, unspoken rules of the road.

Probably the most glaring example of this paradox is the usage of horns here. I'm certain that my intitial response to the cacophany of honking upon arrival in India was similar to that of most Americans. Despite what our driving school instructors teach us, in the US horns are used almost exclusively in a reactionary, usually emotional manner. Now, they certainly used this way in India, but the vast majority of the time horns actually serve as a warning or caution to others. It's actually a curtousy to other travelers, an aid to help them avoid accidents. This conclusion is reinforced by ubiquitous signs of the backs of autos reading "Horn Please." It's a necessary measure to avoid accidents in a situation where every driver is constantly maneuvering to optomize his position. Without enforced driving rules, and with the understanding that every driver will do what he must to get by whatever is in front of him, Indians have developed this etiquette in everyone's interest.



At first, these honks evoked the same unsettling reactions they would in the US: fear of an impending collision, reactionary anger and/or annoyance. However I'm beginning to learn to take it as the courtesy it is meant to be and use it to make informed navigational decisions. At the same time I'm trying to use this discovery to become more comfortable with the idea that although many of the laws of this country are not followed, this is not a lawless country. Formality is replaced with informality, and the rule of necessity trumps written statutes.

Friday, October 26, 2007

India

Well, we've finally made it to India. After 25 straight hours in the Bangkok airport, one 25+ hour flight delay, one missed train and a total of 50+ hours from the time we left our hostel we landed in New Delhi at around 9:30 yesterday evening. Almost immediately after we got on the Air India flight the transition we were making hit us like a punch to the face. India is very different from the places we've traveled so far, even Bangkok with its incredible sprawling metropolis. One example: thus far we've primarily used public transportation, in part because it has been cheap and very easily available in the places we have been. Not so in New Delhi. Everything it seems requires a taxi ride, which in turn requires the effort of getting a fair deal from whatever taxi drivers are harrassing you at that moment (and almost all other moments on the street). I think we spent half our day today negotiating or traveling to destinations on the clogged Delhi streets. Anyway, more to come soon. Delhi is amazing but also crazy. Everything is hectic right now, and hopefully things will calm down a little once we've got our feet squarely on the ground.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Guide to Spending the Night in Suvarnabhumi (Bangkok) Airport (or I Forgot to Look at the Date on My Ticket)

The following will shortly be submitted to www.sleepinginairports.com

15:10
Arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok two hours before 17:20 non-stop flight to New Delhi, India.

15:16
Locate Air India ticket counter for check-in.

15:17
Ticket counter agent informs us that our tickets state that our flight will be leaving at 17:20 the following day.

15:18- 15:30
Curse our travel agent (for not following directions), the ticket agent (for being the messenger), and ourselves (for being idiots and messing up our departure date).

15:30
After a little research, come to the consensus that the trip back to Bangkok is too long/expensive/troublesome. Local hotels (and airport rooms) place themselves out of our budget (tip: Don’t necessarily believe someone just because they say they are an airport official and have a badge/card, they undoubtedly get commissions for the overpriced hotels/transportation “deals” they offer to get for you). Spending the night in the airport terminal, while daunting, also seems the most adventurous out of all the available options.

15:45
Set about exploring the arrival/departure terminal. Locate: potential places to sleep (3rd floor, on the ends of the hallway, near the toilets), power outlets (everywhere, including near sleeping spots), food (cheaper “local” spots on bottom floor towards the end of the terminal), cheap beer (same), massage parlor (300 Baht massage may very well become necessary), a Muslim prayer room (???), baggage hold room (24hrs, so very key) and two huge, excellently manicured gardens (to frolic in).



16:15
Head to baggage hold room and stow three bags at 100 Baht/24hrs each (about $9 altogether). Keep two small backpacks with: laptop, laptop lock, cameras, coats (LOTS of warm clothing needed), bandana (sleeping blindfold), reading material, pack of cards, toiletries, and other assorted tidbits.

16: 25
Wander aimlessly, discuss boredom-fighting strategies, and reassure each other of decision made. Explore gardens, discover Buddhist shrine and odd pyramid-shaped “local” (read: airport employee) hangout spot. Buy beer at “local” grocery store and imbibe. Skype family members, etc., etc.



20:00
Feel a bit peckish. Set out to find a place hospitable to vegetarians. Shortly come to the conclusion that Suvarnabhumi is not very hospitable to vegetarians. Eat a very greasy “almost” vegetarian meal at one establishment and watch half of Transporter II (seems much cheesier without sound). Move on to dessert next door. Play cards (Texas Hold’em, War, King’s Corners).

0:30
Move to “sleeping” area (near the end of 3rd floor) to set up camp alongside the other airport squatters (motley crew). Check email, diddle on the Internet, begin writing “A Guide to Spending the Night in Suvarnabhumi (Bangkok) Airport.”

2:30
Begin the long and arduous attempt to sleep. Get up countless times to readjust positions, reallocate clothes, and complain about the artificially created freezing temperatures (tip: CARRY LOTS OF CLOTHES. Also, consider newspaper as bedding or utilize sleeping bag like person next to us). Use computer lock to secure bags and computer to terminal seat bed (doesn’t seem to be necessary with all the security, but why not be safe).

6:00
After a short bathroom break, finally decide to search for a warmer, more habitable environment somewhere else in the terminal. Find said warmer, more habitable environment directly above on level 4: cushioned seats, more distant air conditioning. Fall directly back to sleep for another three hours.

9:20
Get up, allow girlfriend lying space since she spent three hours of “sleeping time” not sleeping, work on uploading trip photos.

11:30
Search for something to eat. Hopes for a better dining experience dashed as the lunch place turns out to be similar to the dinner spot the night before.

14:30
Retrieve bags from baggage hold room. Head to Air India counter.

14:35
Morale completely smashed as we learn that our flight has been delayed an entire day. Raise the truce flag and accept the free night at the local 5 star hotel.

Currently at the airport stealing free internet (hotel charges a whopping 500 Baht/12 hrs). Wish me better luck tomorrow.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Hot and Wet in Ayutthaya (and Bankok, and Hong Kong, and...)

It’s what I’m getting used to being: Hot and Wet. From Hong Kong, to Singapore, to here in Bangkok, from morning to evening, and even sometimes continuing on through the night. The constant struggle to stay hydrated, stay in the shade, find the air-conditioned shop or metro never strays far from my mind. The overhead fan in our room remains constantly twirling from the second we enter to moment we leave. Without it I can’t imagine what sleep I would be able to find.
Yesterday was the worse so far. We left for Ayutthaya, the ancient Thai capital, located two hours by train north of Bangkok. Walking down the underground tunnel to the train station I was already sweating profusely, and by the time we stopped for a snack after buying our tickets I had already wiped away most of the bug spray I’d meticulously applied at the hostel. Amazingly, Sarah’s dependence on her morning cup of coffee endured the heat, although it was more than an hour later before it cooled down enough for her to enjoy it.

One-third of the electricity used in Singapore goes towards air-conditioning. In Hong Kong even the banged up 70s era busses that take you to and from the New Territories are air-conditioned. While these places have taught me to (literally) appreciate the lengths to which these cities have gone to, I think it was during the train ride to Ayutthaya that I realized the uncomfortable lack of this convenience. Those two hours of purgatory allowed me enough time to temporarily sweat away, along with my deodorant, all my environmentally conscious opposition to those energy suckers.

The trip to Ayutthaya was definitely worth it, if only for our first glimpse of the Wat Chai Wattanaram, one of the major Buddhist temples that stand half ruined around the city. My previous anger at being ripped off by the tuk-tuk driver who got us there melted away as I took in the temple’s grandeur. What a civilization that could have conceived of such a thing! Over two centuries after it was looted and burned and left to fall to pieces it still stands as a testament to Lewis Mumford’s Megamachine.



The trip back to Bangkok was, due to the setting of the sun and a subtle nighttime breeze, considerably less sweaty. Nonetheless, by the time we got back to the Baan Hua Lampong Guest House I had no problem with once again feeling wet, this time by taking a cold (compulsory because there is no hot option) shower. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get really comfortable with being hot and wet, but the trip to Ayutthaya definitely taught me that I’m just going to have to deal with it.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Modernity in Singapore's Little India



I’m not sure what it is about vending machines that interest me so much. I think it has to do with the way it represents an attempt to completely automate, mechanize, etc., society. It’s the epitome of desocialized consumer interaction. This example is a soda cup machine found in Little India, complete with ice! These machines are more interesting than ours; they fill a cup up, rather than simply popping a bottle out.

Little India was one of the more interesting spots in Singapore, and got me very excited about the two weeks we'll soon be spending in Delhi and Chennai. This area is one of the few in the city that seems even a little bit grubby. Singapore's "strict" government doesn't allow much riff-raff in its city: $1,000 (US$ 666) fines for spitting and littering or eating in inappropriate places. Vandalism carries a lashing punishment. Drug dealing? The death penalty. Singapore takes its security and hygiene pretty seriously, which makes it nice to visit.

The "wet" market we went to in Little India this morning also highlights another trend in modern society: globalisation. Sarah's uncle prefers to visit these types of open-air markets to get his produce, meat cuts, etc. He says the prices are better and the food fresher. He's also keen enough to point out however just how global much of the produce is. His tip was to look at the boxes and crates lying around to see where they originated.



I wonder if there is any Slow Foods movement here as there is in the U.S. Then again, Singapore doesn't really have much of a choice about importing its food (or most other things), given how little room there is already on this island.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Week One: Hong Kong

I don’t think there is a better place anywhere in the world for a US citizen to experience a comfortable transition to not-North America than Hong Kong. The clichéd idea of East and West enmeshing cannot help but capture this city precisely. Everything- signs, menus, warning labels- is displayed in English and Chinese (often both Manderin and Cantonese). By my uninformed estimate I’d say about 95+% of the population speaks passable English (and a good portion fluently). The public transportation is (with good reason) ranked one of the best in the world. I don’t know if I’ve ever had an easier time navigating a subway system. Additionally, while there are certainly tabooed cultural mannerisms and superstitions (for instance, the apartment we are staying in doesn’t have a 4ht, 14th, or 24th floor, due to the association between the number four and bad luck), the combination of the politeness of the local residents and the sufficiently international and multicultural composition of the city make for a place where no American need to pay heed to local etiquette.

Sarah and I arrived in Hong Kong late Tuesday evening, and have ended up staying with a German fellow named Fabian for most of our time here. We found Fabian through the site couchsurfing.com, which, based on my very limited experience with it, now ranks among facebook and craigslist in my book as one of the most impressive and useful utilizations of the Internet for networking purposes. Fabian has been nothing less than an extraordinary host, giving us tips and taking us out to local spots and interesting places.

It was Fabian’s brilliant idea that Hong Kong would be the ideal place to pick up some cheap mobile phones to donate in Africa. I contacted Bruhan Mubiru, the director of the organization I’ll be working with in Kampala, and he said that there was definitely a need for mobile phones. Apparently twelve of his staffers are using a single phone. I hope that these Nokias will be able to serve TASAAGA well.



In case spending charity money on mobile phones seems frivolous, read why "the mobile phone is the only viable technology that can bridge the digital divide."

Monday, October 1, 2007

G94, San Francisco Airport

Well, since I have about a billion year lay-over in San Francisco, I guess this will be my first travelblog post. And how fitting that so far I've found a couple of items that fit right in to my technic-oriented blog. First, I encountered a pretty awesome exhibit walking through the SF Airport. It's all about several dozen recent inventions by bay-area companies. The exhibit displays the "product" (they're mostly all gimmicky things to buy) as well as various prototypes and designs for it, along with descriptions. And look!



Ok, you might not be as excited as I was. In (the likely) case you didn't read my previous post about the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, this is what's pictured here. It looks very small in real life. Too bad you can't order them in batches smaller than 250,000, otherwise I'd be using some donation money to bring a couple over with me to Africa.

Shortly afterwards, I ran into one of these: a iPod vending machine. Man, Apple really has made it. My question is, does it really fall to the bottom after you buy it like a snack machine? I couldn't tell.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Thesisblog to Travelblog

When I first began blogging over two years ago, I had specific goals in mind. I wanted to use this electronic medium in a dynamic way, enmeshing discussion of my topic within the scope of the subject itself. And while I've wrestled from time to time with the focus and scope of this blog, I'm happy about the space it has created for me to further delve into the issues spawned it in the first place. In fact, I believe it is because I've kept such a focus that I still find this place useful for me (although this still hasn't prohibited me from neglecting it every so often).

That is why I've been debating internally for some time what to do with Thought Process during my nearly year long journey around the world, which I will commence on Monday. While I have some reservations about suddenly changing what began as my thesisblog into a travelblog, I think in some sense my decision reflects the dynamic spirit of blogging. Blogs are interesting in that they are both ephemeral and historical. They are constantly changing, but also chronicle their own past. Formats, environments, subjects and writing styles may reinvent a blog, but one can also find amongst its archives a story, a historical trajectory through which one can recreate the past.

In this spirit I've decided to shift the scope of Thought Process towards that of a travelblog. While I'm still not entirely sure what this will entail, I assume that there will be a significant change in the subject and even the tone of the posts. This is not to say that I will not try to fit in my writing with the general themes of this blog. Rather, I expect a new perspective may appear as I travel about.

I don't have any great expectations or grand illusions about what this will likely mean. Since I have nearly always used this space as more of a personal sounding board than anything else, I don't expect a big reaction from the few readers who find themselves here. At the very least I will attempt to walk a fine line between academic and personal writing, and in so much I hope that any friends and family that would like to learn a little more about my travels will find something useful here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Internet and Democracy Project

The Berkman Center recently announced their newest project, Internet and Democracy. The project will focus on the Middle East and include both research and the development of Internet tools for democratic activists in these areas. A graduate student and researcher for the project contacted me a little while back about the project to get some input and tips on the blogging situation in Iran. I'm interested in seeing what they come up with.


In the press release Jon Zittrain, a co-founder of the Berkman Center, noted one of the primary goals: "We want to help develop and test simple, lightweight tools for civic engagement online – tools that facilitate coordination among people who share a common cause, and good faith dialogue among people who disagree." Of course, I have my own ideas about what sort of projects they could create. Clearly, the main factors inhibiting free speech and democratic use of the Internet in Iran are censorship and accessibility. While its a difficult task to try an find solutions to these issues, there are a couple of areas where one could make headway. For instance, one of the first things that could be done with regards to censorship would be to compile and maintain a categorized list of censored websites, blogs, etc. This has been done on an informal level (Derakhshan's now defunct stop.censoring.us is one example), but could definitely be expanded upon and deepened. Of especial concern is the task of making this information available to netizens in Iran. Thinking about this problem from the angle of decentralized networks (think P2P filesharing) could provide solutions, as this is one of the potential strengths of blogging communities.

Another, perhaps more far-fetched approach to the question of accessibility would be to utilize the State Departments' Iranian democracy promoting budget to improve Internet access through remote servers. Is it out of the question to attempt some sort of remote Internet broadcasting into Iran, much as was done with satellite in the 90's? I'd argue if successful it would be more effective than spending that money on broadcasting propaganda tv as we are now.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Competing Facebook Architectures

Newsweek's recent article got me thinking...

I still remember the slightly haunting image that greeted me the first time I signed on to Facebook. The ubiquitous literal face of the site (later I learned it was that of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg), filtered through a haze of binary code, gave off the creepy sense that one had entered a secret community maintained by omniscient hands. Facebook’s face has since disappeared from it’s webpages- perhaps many felt as uncomfortable about it as I did- as has some of the site’s mysterious aura. Now one of the hottest and most talked about Internet companies, the online social networking site is a common feature in the lives of many (dare I say most?) of its targeted core demographic, college students. And with the gradual inclusion of high school, company, and now citywide and regional networks (and soon to be multiple languages), it is beginning to take off with others as well.



However, the disappearance of the quirky logo symbolizes a much larger shift, one that has come under greater scrutiny of late as Facebook moves to position itself among other Internet behemoths, such as Google and YouTube. While some view these changes as merely an expansion, in reality the company is altering the underlying architecture of the system, a system that was originally developed to be specifically inclusive as well as exclusive. This shift, whether conscious or not, could threaten to disturb much of the original intent and attractiveness of the site. Only time will tell if the new direction will successfully cope with the consequences incurred.

It’s clear that the Internet revolution we have witnessed over the last decade and a half has had an incredible impact on how the world communicates. This is seen no less in the ways we utilize these new technologies to socialize. E-mail, weblogs, instant messaging, and social networking sites have all greatly increased the access we have to our friends, as well as introduced mediums through which new formulas for interaction have emerged. I remember distinctly how one of my closest college friends became involved with her eventual long-term boyfriend primarily through instant messaging conversations. Who’s to say what would (or wouldn’t) have happened if she had not had this specific mode of communication, at once intimate, informal and un-intimidating, by which she could develop a connection with her crush? As Facebook the company itself claims, the key to its success is building off social networks that exist in the real world. Mark Zuckerberg notes himself in his recent interview with Newsweek that he envisions his creation “not [as] a social-networking site but a ‘utility,’ a tool to facilitate the information flow between users and their compatriots, family members and professional connections.”

Whatever one wants to call it, early on Facebook definitely attempted to conform to a notion of social boundaries, in this case dictated by the college stratum. This sort of architecture allowed for a continuation of the semipublic, semiprivate space in which users could interact freely within their comfortable social nest. The structure worked especially well for the founding college networks, Ivy League and other small, elite private schools that in many ways function as insulated, self-contained social groupings (at my school it was referred to as the Amherst “bubble”).

To be sure, Facebook didn’t merely imitate real social networks, it also influenced and altered them. By taking an existing grouping, that of a college campus, and increasing the transparency of it to its users, it deepened a sense of community within these networks. Facebook “groups” and “events” reflected an insider perspective, and stories and photos fodder for campus news and gossip. At the same time, in some cases the use of the online social-networking tool also maintained and even reinforced social barriers, as I myself realized when I tried to explain to my parents news that was old-hat to anyone with an account.

It’s unsurprising that the creators of Facebook would attempt to expand the network in light of the sensation it created. Indeed, key to the success of such sites is its use by the majority of one’s social network. Soon after its creation olleges across the country began pouring into the network, dozens a week. It’s rare to find a college nowadays that doesn’t have a Facebook presence. However, realizing the potential for growth outside its traditional market, as well as the pressure from both sides of the college-age demographic (both wannabe high schoolers and graduating pioneer Facebookers), Mark Zuckerberg & co. decided to take the network in a new direction. Opening up Facebook first to high schoolers, then companies, and finally to anyone with a valid e-mail address, Facebook suddenly became a much more populist endeavor. And while the initial expansions into high school and corporate networks maintained at some level the inclusive-exclusive feel of the site, in general the company’s policies and innovations have decidedly taken what could be called a Myspace-like route. In fact, it is hard not to surmise that Facebook has attempted to cash in on Myspace’s less hands-on strategy. Although it adamantly maintains control over layout, innovations such as developer tools reflect the growing impression of the need to give users more control (As a side note, this new language has also helped to ensure rapid innovation, a key to maintaining the interest of users. Users no longer having to rely on Facebook itself to create the next new fancy gadget, as a willing army of young college-age students and commercial marketers are chomping at the bit to attain fame or an extra dollar).

The dynamic between the Facebook classic and Myspace architectures essentially comes down to an emphasis on freedom versus security/comfort. With Myspace, the free-spirit of the Internet, embodied in the legality of HTML manipulation on profile pages (the heart and soul of online social networks), allows for a sense of individuality and expression that many crave, as is demonstrated by the shear popularity of the networking site. Facebook, while appealing to individuality, maintains a stricter sense of belonging and privileged access. This more rigid structure succeeds because it is built along real social boundaries, and thus reinforces communities with implicit links of trust. Facebook social networking is less about creating new networks than about deepening already existing networks, as Mark Zuckerberg himself admits in the recent Newsweek article. Myspace, by contrast, abounds with people searching out new professional contacts, consumer markets, or romantic interests.

There are prices to be paid for either type of network architecture. With the Facebook (classic) model, one must adhear to preset aesthetic and format standards, limiting expression. In addition, these networks also attempt to conform to real-life social boundaries, and thus have less flexibility than some would wish in a virtual utopia. However, the benefits of such a system can often outweigh the alternatives, as illustrated in the Myspace model. First, de-emphasis on networks debases their significance. Identities selected within a meaningful set of options, in this case college affiliations, mean more than comparing affiliations between schools, companies, cities and regions. Are the social networks of all but the largest university and a city even comparable? Another consequence is the increasing emptiness in communication. Spamming and commercialization devalue group forums, walls and event invitations (Facebook’s introduction of the News Feed was actually a clever means of maintaining the significance of information and communication transfer in the face of ballooning networks, but imagine the effect when the majority of feeds are advertisements and impersonal notes). A third issue is that less barriers to access means that more people can see how you interact, whether you want them to or not. The growing concern over employers’ use of Facebook highlights this problem.

These issues go beyond a sense of lost innocence in the network. If there is any doubt about the perceived difference between these two systems, one need not look further than the online protests that rocked Facebook in response to the decision to open up the site. Groups against the increased access abounded, with many threatening to discontinue use if the status quo was not maintained. In response, Facebook has taken great steps to increase options concerning access and distribution of information, which admittedly did much to calm discontented users. Still, this is only a partial solution since it doesn’t address the underlying reasons for a need for increased security. No longer contained within relatively trusted networks, the freedom of the Internet becomes a dangerously foggy place, where understanding over who does and doesn’t have access is clouded.

The interesting dilemma of Facebook’s evolution brings about paradoxical questions of elitism and hierarchy in these online networks: How to maintain the inclusiveness and community of a Facebook model while also encompassing a more individualistic, less exclusionary system similar to Myspace. It is a difficult question, but I believe one would do well to address it by going back to Zuckerberg’s claim about Facebook as a tool meant to facilitate existing networks. As Bowling Alone’s Robert Putnam notes, sites such as Facebook may be the most useful as a socializing ‘alloy’ that maintains strong links to real-world networks. Creating these distinctions, or at least creating room to define them, may be a way of reinforcing such real-world connections.

Saying all this, I’ll no doubt continue using my Facebook account to stay in touch with friends, to chat, snoop and gossip. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that I must make a decision about how I use Facebook: whether to connect with friends, update parents and older relatives, facilitate my professional/academic future, etc.. Of course some of this decision-making has already been done for me (Facebook’s popularity discourages posting every detail about my personal life in my photo albums for instance), but to an extent I still have some choice. It is difficult, however, for me to choose all of the above and have my account maintain its usefulness, since I can’t (or won’t) interact with friends and censor myself at the same time. I don’t know which path I will eventually choose, but rest assured, as it now stands it will be a decision I will have to make.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Blackfacing Still Around??


Wow. I can't believe that UNICEF actually went along with this advertisement campaign. I guess I could see someone thinking it was a clever idea if they were really oblivious to the deeper implications of such depictions and unaware of the racist history of "blackfacing," but really, there's no excuse for it.

I think that critics are right when they state that many in the US and Europe can't get away from a narrow, blunted view of Africa. Unfortunately, even good intentions suffer from these problems. I can only speak as an American, but living in a racialized society with a history of prejudice creates a regretful reality where such "mistakes" (we hope) perpetuate ignorance.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Dirty Fingerprints All Over Wikipedia



I use Wikipedia pretty regularly for all sorts of things, and despite all the criticism about its open-source nature (which I whole-heartedly agree has some drawbacks), I think that it generally can be a good source of information.

But especially interesting is the transparency of the site. You can look up discussions about edits, and apparently also locate the sources of edits. Of course, as this article points out, this doesn't mean we know exactly who is responsible for the changes. I'm sure too that organizations such as the CIA and the Vatican will be more discreet with their edits, or at least more explicit with their Internet AUPs. But it's nice to know that the Internet is still a relatively transparent place.

UPDATE: Hilarious. Apparently BBC is not above its own criticisms, although it is above reporting about them. At least they've come out and admitted their mistake. But leave it up to bloggers to leave no stone unturned.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Registering Iranian Blogs

It's a little old, but I was struck by this article that I happened across recently. The government's actions are perfectly in line with their other attempts to censor the net, but trying to get 100,000+ active bloggers to register? How are they planning on doing that I ask? It would have been much simpler to start off with a registering system, but of course that is part of the systemic problem with Internet censorship in Iran. Like satellite tv before it, the regime has been slow to pick up on the dangers of the Internet, and without a comprehensive strategy for dealing with it, their uncoordinated tactics seem sloppy. Of course part of that has to do with the necessary impression of democratic legitimacy that the regime must feign. Still, I think the underlying problem is one of disunity. Of course, this doesn't mean that their actions are impotent. Iranian bloggers still have to deal with the consequences.

Oh, and the article mentions Ahmadinejad's own blog as well. Pretty funny stuff.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Malaria Mondays and a Blast From the Past

Today is "Malaria Monday" for me. For the next three weeks I'll be taking the antimalarial drug Lariam for a test drive to see if I have any negative side-effects. As the nurse who proscribed me the pills said, "if you start seeing pink elephants and no one else is, we'll need to talk." Apparently the drug can cause a small percentage of people to have "night terrors" and other hallucinations. Depressed people aren't supposed to take it. Only happy thoughts for me this month!

This weekend I came across the Internet Archive, a site that archives old and extinct websites. I ran a search and guess what, I found my old blog! Unfortunately not all of the posts were saved, which means that my very first posts are gone forever as far as I can tell. But it was still nice to see that I could have some access to it, especially the links that I collected during my project.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Live BBC Interview

I just came upon this BBC interview of a group of Congolese from the Katanga. It's interesting because it's a group interview conducted in real-time with questions coming in via the Internet from all over the world. Similarly to the much hyped YouTube US presidential debate, it brings a new perspective to the issue at hand, the then upcoming DRC national elections, by presenting questions not normally asked by reporters. However, I think the most significant aspect is the real interaction between interviewers and the interviewees. I liked the realization by the Congolese interviewees that they were able to address the entire world, and that the world was concerned with their problems. I'd like to set something up during my trip with locals and friends and family back home. It'd be a real kick to find out the similarities and differences between sides.

Monday, July 30, 2007

On "Saving" Africa

It is fairly commonplace both in academic circles and political polemics to argue over the merit, motivations, and benefits (or consequences) of “Western” involvement and interest in Africa. I just came across a recent incarnation of this debate, with different sides taking aim at the recent “trendy-ness” of humanitarian work in Africa. Attention paid to Africa by celebrities such as Bono and heads of state like Blair have supposedly created a craze on US college campuses over numerous charitable efforts to help the disadvantaged of that continent. “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa” through self-involved and self-interested projects, the Washington-post op-ed asserts. Yet at least one blogger (and more looking at the comments) thinks that more attention paid to the issues facing Africa is better than no attention at all.

From where I stand, it’s a complicated and nuanced question. Personally, I’d like to be able to admit that I’m a passive and objective observer. But it would be useless for me to try to ignore my perspective, one that fits closely with the (recent) college do-gooder profile that the Washington post article critiques. How dare we (I) presume to know anything about anything? And yet, isn’t there something to be said for idealists who hope to work for justice and humanity, even if it means they themselves benefit? I know many college students work on these issues at least in part because of the attention they get from other students, or simply because it makes them feel better about themselves. But self-interested incentives nearly always play a part in motivation to any action, and so why not for a good cause? It’s a dangerous line to be sure, but not one that cannot create beneficial situations.

Given this, it’s all the more important for me to constantly re-evaluate my motivations and goals, especially for the trip I will soon be taking to Africa. Am I cognizant of my role in my environment, or am I ignorant, or worse, unwilling to acknowledge ignorance? I don’t think it’s fair to say that I am doing what I am doing for entirely altruistic purposes- how often is this ever the case- and so understanding what my real motivations are will be vital to avoiding some of the pitfalls of orientalism and Ameri-centrism.

Ultimately, I’m confident that I can have a positive impact on the communities I visit while also gaining valuable experience and knowledge. I’ve studied non-Western colonial history enough to carry a sense of cynicism when it comes to “saving” anyone, and so I don’t pretend to be god’s gift to Africa. Instead, I hope to help as well as receive help, in the hopes that my experience will allow me to increase my impact as a global citizen in the future.

On a somewhat unrelated note, interesting article found through an interesting blog.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Iran: View From Here

Farid just forwarded me a link to the GVO interview with View From Iran's Tori Egherman. Her blog is one of my favorites- an insightful, thought-provoking and accessable blog about Iran from the perspective of an American.

Apparently, she has decided to publish a book based on her experiences in Iran during her stay there with her husband the past three years. I'm ordering a copy today or tomorrow.

I'm glad to see that a good portion of what I said earlier was corroborated by Tori in her interview. In it she comments,

I think that their influence on the political sphere in Iran itself is limited. On the other hand, I think the blogs offer a valuable insight into Iranian life for people living outside of Iran. They humanize Iran.

I agree and I think that this is what struck me most when I began reading Iranian blogs over two years ago. It's truly amazing to be able to "live" a slice of a life so different from your own, yet also in ways similar enough to connect with its humanity. I think I echo her point about the segmentation of Iranian society when I talk about the narrowness generally speaking of the blogger political perspective there. I would only differ slightly in saying that I think the effect of the Internet and blogs in Iran do have political significance, but in more indirect and subtle ways.

Anyway, I'm excited to read the book, and see the pictures (inspiration for my trip)! I'm addicted to the escapism of photography.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Busy busy busy

Wow, time flies. I've been spending much of my free time re-introducting myself to webpage development. I just finished a page about my impending trip around the world and in Africa. It's simple, but I'm happy with it.

I've also been reading Lewis Mumford's Myth of the Machine. While I've been praising to no end the rewards and promise of technology in the developing world, I've forgotten to take into account the intense criticism it has garnished from truly insightful people like Lewis. I think studying such criticism from both Western and non-Western perspectives is key to fully comprehend the dangers of religious adherence to technology. Here is a quote I found interesting from Myth of the Machine:

In the working out of this parallel and in the tracing of the archetypal machine through later Western history, I found that many obscure irrational manifestations in our own highly mechanized and supposedly rational culture became strangely clarified. For in both cases, immense gains in valuable knowledge and usable productivity were cancelled out by equally great increases in ostentatious waste, paranoid hostility, insensate destructiveness, hideous random extermination.

Perfect analysis of the complementary way technology has worked with our consumer culture, where advances in ease and access come hand-in-hand with increased expectation and the creation of "necessity."

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Thesis

A little over a year ago I posted a PDF link to my thesis on my old blog. That link is no longer active, and anyway the post attached to it no longer exists either. So here it is again (PDF format still). Enjoy.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Lately I've been delving into more academic texts about the status of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Africa. Most of the stuff I've read so far has been at least a couple of years old, but it's still been very informative and somewhat inspiring. Take this for instance. It talks about setting up a low cost non-profit ISP in rural Uganda. Sounds like a great project, if a little too over my head to think about doing myself. Nonetheless, I admire their drive. I am also trying to get my hands on the entire issue of Telematics and Informatics from February 2004, which is all about ICT in Africa. I found one of the included articles about a blogger survey in Kamapala which I might try to build on when I'm over there.

Finally, I also found some newer stuff going on. I've never heard of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation before, but if their idea for a low-cost, low-impact computer is viable, then it sounds pretty cool!

An update about the project

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Press TV

What to make of the Iranian government's new Press TV? Its a recent 24 hr English tv news channel produced by the Iranian government. I learned of it through an article from the New York Times. Whether it was my server acting up, or something more sinister, I could not visit the new station's website myself, but I did visit a cached link by Google. The results: pretty much what you would expect from the Iranian regime. The stories look pretty blatently pro-Ahmadinejad, anti-American. Still, one wonders what sort of news or footage might be aired here that may not make it on Western channels.

I have yet to watch the channel itself, but I would say that this is a very clear indicator that Ahmadinejad & co. are taking their role as competing regional power very seriously (as if that wasn't clear before). This play moves Iran up in terms of its ability to counter American efforts at media propoganda (a la RadioFree Europe and US-based Persian language stations). I can't imagine what the exact impact will be, or who will tune in. The Iranian regime is learning to become more sophisticated in its geopolitical power-struggle with the West.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Censorship in Iranian Magazines


It's a bit old, but I just ran across this post by a Swedish traveller about censorship in Iran. It has some interesting pictures, as well as some thought-provoking commentary on the role of censorship in various societies today. His point is that Americans are subject to censorship just as the Iranians are, it is simply a more subtle form. In fact, he suggests that in Iran, at least the censorship is transparant (at least in magazines). His point about "colonialist" perspectives of National Geographic and other US magazines struck me as interesting.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Palestinian Children


I saw this recent article in my local paper a few days ago. Apparently this mickey mouse-like character committed suicide on an episode for Palestinian children. I think it goes to show how far the culture of violence and martyrdom have gone in Palestine. It's a shame that neither side can come to terms with the other. How have some groups managed to get over this, while others cannot? No doubt much of this has to do with context. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is about much more than a matter about Palestinian soveriegnty. Its links to political debate in the US, Iran, Europe and the rest of the Middle East make it much more difficult to find a solution. I think its pretty clear however that there is certainly a need for a solution before children brought up watching such rubbish come to perpetuate the conflict. Palestinian children deserve better, and both sides, along with their backers, are responsible for their fate.



On a slightly different note, the usage of such an iconic American figure is pretty ironic given the attitudes of Hamas. Another case of appropriating American culture in the postcolonial world?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Entrepreneurism vs. Aid in Africa

"You're going to give starving kids in Africa computers? What are they going to do with it, eat it? Maybe you can give them some CD players too." This was the response from my brother about my idea of bringing over a number of computer laptops to Africa with me in the fall. It was a typically zippy remark from him, bringing to light the utter idiocy of what I had previously considered an clever plan. All of a sudden all I could say was, "Uh, yeah."

My brother's comments cut to the heart of a larger debate over what is really needed to bring the African continent out of its abject poverty and closer to the type of affluence that we are used to here in the US (although perhaps some might cringe at the prospect of having the world act with the same extravagantly wasteful abandon we do here). It is the same debate that has received some amount of media and blogopshere attention with the occurance of the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, Tanzania earlier this month. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. TED is an organization that conducts conferences to bring together entrepreneurial spirits from these three industries in the hope of sharing ideas and resources. TEDGlobal is apparently working to spread this culture of entrepreneurism to help less developed countries. Many African bloggers discussed, covered or attended the conference themselves this past month. Global Voices Online has provided a spread of some of the discussion surrounding the conference, which was altogether positive. I thought a few comments were especially interesting:

Rafiq Philips, from South Africa, summed up the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit the conference seemed to embody with these words: "Screw the handouts to Africa, give us the tools that allow us to solve our own problems."

Soyapi Mumba, a blogger from Malawi, echoed this sentiment:

Before going to TED Global, I kept hearing voices blaming governments for not doing this and that plus several other reasons why African countries cannot prosper unless some one from outside Africa does something.... At TED however, everyone I met was determined to solve Africa’s problems without waiting for governments or donors. So I’ve come back energised and connected to the right community that will hopefully keep me motivated.


The idea of a focus on economic self-improvement is something that Jason Pontin of the New York Times wrote about in his article concerning the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha. He is a bit more ambivalent about what is needed in Africa, noting that there are still many basic needs that can be met much more efficiently and directly through charitable aid than through indirect economic incentives. He even touches a little on what my brother was getting at in questioning whether or not it is ethical to focus on technology and capitalist enterprise when people are starving.

Ultimately Pontin comes to the conclusion that both economic/technological investment and more basic aid will be needed to help Africa. I personally think I am drawn to the technological side because it seems to provide a sense of normalicy to a place that is in many ways quite different (I imagine) from anything I have experienced. It could be that I think it is more decent, less degrading, less pitying to help people understand and utilize a technology, rather than simply provide a service or give them money or aid. The relationship seems more symmetric, the pay-offs greater for everyone. Perhaps I am just convincing myself of my own righteousness, but I believe that the attempt to facilitate the use of technology in Africa is not futile. In fact, I see the potential as much more helpful and hopeful than the altogether mixed success US aid has had in Africa thus far.

Nonetheless, it is refreshing to have someone like my brother putting things into perspective... at least every once in a while.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Science, Technology and Socio-Cultural Perspective

Reflecting on some of the topics I nearly wrote my undergrad thesis on, I recently recalled that one of the things that initially interested me most about Africa was the interesting consequences of convoluting modern technology and science with Euro-American cultural bias in the context of colonial/postcolonial Africa. What so often has passed for "science" introduced in Africa by Europeans (and Americans) has also had implicit or overt socio-political meanings as well. In some cases this has created an ambivalence towards medicine and science (perhaps less so technology, although often this goes together with the other two). There is an incredible advantage for Africa in adopting new technologies and scientific and medical methods. However, the socio-cultural aspect of these adoptions play a somewhat complicated yet influential role in the benefit provided.

By coincidence, I just picked up on a GVO link to a blogger who attended a recent social activist conference in Nairobi dealing with the use of mobile phone technology. This blogger pointed out the lack of African involvement on the technology side:


The issue of how to deal with the ownership of technology and technological expertise was also discussed. All the technologists where white and tended to be white males. Why are African technologists not involved in development technology? And technology in general. These questions remain to be answered but definitely something that crops up repeatedly in any discussion on technology in Africa whether mobile phones or the internet.


Hmmm... how to address this...

Friday, May 25, 2007

Avaaz, YouTube, and a Clash of Meaning?

Stop the Clash of Civilizations? A new YouTube clip, produced by a NGO called Avaaz, cought my attention the other day. Interesting for a number of reasons. First, do they mean to perpetuate the bankurpt theories of Samual Huntington? The "Clash of Civilizations is the idea that the conflicts of the perceivable future will be centered around irreconcilable differences between stagnant regional civilizations. This of course would make sense to certain global figures who view the world in these black-and-white terms. However, for most of the sane world the premises of the idelology hold no water. I wonder why then this group would use this title to contextualize their message? I see it as not really preventing a clash of civilizations, but more deconstruting a faulty theory about clashing civilizations.



Avaaz is apparently backed by two goups, MoveOn.org and a group called Res Publica. I've worked for MoveOn.org, so I know a little about the organization. They were behind broad movements in 04 and 06 to help Democrats win US elections. In 06 they did this mainly through a vast telephone campaign aimed at getting "progressive" voters out to the polls. Unsurprisingly, the clip itself points to these huge telephone trees as the (only mentioned) reason for the Dems victory in 06. A nice little pat on its own back. MoveOn has always been internet savvy, but it looks like they are looking to utilize it even more through popular sites like YouTube. They are known to have a large and growing email base, an attractive aspect for many political organizations and candidates. There's no question that they are trying to position themselves as the leading internet activist group, as their hand in the broadly defined agenda of Avaaz indicates. Despite Republican efforts to thwart its growing influence, I'd look out for MoveOn in the next election. Personally, I'm interested in how closely they link themselves with an increasingly centrist Democratic party.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wild Frontiers


A conversation with an old acquaintance earlier this week sparked a series of meditations on some strangely connected topics. We were talking about the “lawlessness” of the internet, with its disjointed structure and relative lack of overriding governance. Hackers, thieves, and disreputable people roam the web, making it a modern day wild (wild) west. The two features that truly popularized the internet, porn and ripped music, reveal how lawlessness has characterized the internet phenomenon since its popular beginnings.

Yet, how long will this last? Is the wild wild web, just like its 19th century predecessor, an ephemeral phenomenon? Even now issues of government oversight and internet neutrality seem to hint at the solidifying trajectory of the web. Governments such as China, Iran and Singapore seek authoritarian control over how the internet is used, and by whom. At the same time in the US and other capitalist countries regional and national internet service providers are lobbying for more control over access and marketability of the web. While these two efforts might have divergent goals and motives, they essentially signal the effort to control and manipulate this heretofore relatively open space (notwithstanding the obvious inherent private, elitest nature of access that cannot escape noting). I believe that there is still amazing potential for the internet to evolve into a tool that continues to help inform, educate, and facilitate socio-political equality. However, I fear that there is also the very real threat that this wild frontier will be destroyed by an overbearing urge to control.



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On a seemingly divergent note- but one that shares a similar theme- I recently finished Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, a revisionist historian’s (Dee Brown) look at the taming of the wild west from a Native American (or Native Indian, or just plain Indian, depending on who you are talking to) perspective. This book, first published in the 1970s, covers the American government’s conquest over the native peoples who originally inhabited this land. Proceeding both in chronological order and (roughly) by tribe, it is in essence the same story of greed-induced deceit, unimaginable cruelty, and devastating tragedy told in more than a dozen different contexts.



Putting aside the remarkably saddening picture the book paints of the interaction between whites and natives, an important lesson gleaned is the role socio-cultural perspective plays on interaction between different groups. In this story the idea of ownership and productivity play an incredibly important part in the conflict. These two pinnacles of capitalist idealogy serve as the backbone of misunderstanding between inhabitant and invader. From the native perspective, land was something that could not be bought or sold at any price. It did not belong to anyone in the sense that it could be bartered with or commodified. Inhabitants had a responsibility to the land, to ensure that it continued to sustain those who depended on it. This turned out to be a much more ecologically forward-looking perspective than that of the white settlers and government officials who came to dispossess these native inhabitants. What US government and white prospectors, farmers and merchants saw was the misuse of valuable natural resources by an ignorant group of people. Progress, the watchword of the 19th century industrialization era, dictated that land that wasn’t maximized for humans’ short-term benefits was ipso facto a waste. From the perspective of these Anglo invaders, the land’s bountiful resources were there to be exploited, and the land itself destined to be possessed, bought and sold.

Whites’ perspective on land and land use, along with their own greed for wealth, informed their opinions of the native tribes, who they saw as lazy, ignorant and undeserving of the land. The pressure to attain this land and properly utilize it necessitated the formulation of a doctrine, embodied in the 19th cenury idea of Manifest Destiny, which lent justification to the dispossession of Indian land by Anglos. The psychology needed to accompany these devastating and inhumane acts sprang from the differences in understanding of the relationship between civilization and nature. Hence, at the same time during which the worst of these atrocities were being committed by the US government, the development of the stereotype of Indian savagery also came into focus. This perspective can best be summed up in the words, later popularized, by US Army General Philip Sheriden to his Comanche prisoners: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” (Brown, 170. Interestingly, the idea of the “noble savage” only came about after this period when native tribes no longer posed any real threat and the memory of the “wild west” began to be romanticized by nostalgic whites).

The psychology of domination in the mid to late 19th century American West draws many similarities to imperial and colonial ideology exhibited by Europeans throughout much of the rest of the world at the same time. This was especially the case in Africa, where the conquest of the entire continent was taking place, and the introduction of Europeans and European culture was just beginning to impact indigenous tribes. In many ways, I believe Africa served as the European “wild west,” a vast expanse of “uninhabited” land, potentially rich in natural resources and needing only to be cleaned out and cleaned up. Religious conversion and salvation also played an important role in both conquests, and helped form the ideology of superiority needed to justify the conquest. Ultimately, the colonial psychology, much like the psychology of Manifest Destiny, eventually condoned incredible atrocity- today we would call it genocide- against native cultures, some of whom were driven to near extinction.


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Looking back at the stories of 19th century imperial and colonial conquest helps bring perspective to today, where we continue to wrestle with issues of cross-cultural conflict. At the end of my diatribes I often ask myself where I fit into this picture. Am I working to deconstruct or perpetuate the present-day heirs of these ideologies, neo-imperialism and ethnocentrism? Does my well-intentioned belief in the positive power of technology and the internet merely mimic the well-intentioned beliefs of former religious and secular zealots who, through the imposition of their world views, destroyed the social and cultural fabric of many an unfortunate indigenous group? What am I doing but perpetuating Progress with a capital ‘P,’ facilitating the entry of previously unaffected people into a consumerist society, where their thoughts will be increasingly distorted by a degredated Euro/Ameri-centric capitalist frame. Do I want to perpetuate the tragedy of the American Indian, who have long exhibited the scars of forced assimilation and continue to be the foremost forgotten victims of American success? I believe there are some important differences, yet I acknowledge that there is a slippery slope when it comes to righting legacies of injustice in a modern world. Having a personal connection to the plight of the American Indian, and a significant interest in the search for post-colonial equality and justice, I find the crisscrossing of historical and sociological narratives that inform these situations distinctly interesting. Three different stories of wild frontiers- American, African and virtual- coalesce disjointedly in a disjointed world.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Recycling Computers in Kenya

This is exactly the type of work I think I might want to be involved with on my travel, although on a more integrated and grass-roots level. Computers are an area that I have (admittedly somewhat limited) knowledge of and access to. As I think I've said before, I'm thinking of bringing some computers over when I travel and use them as part of a computer education training course. Linking up with efforts already there will definitely help, however. But I think it would be a great project to get local bloggers and students involved. Definitely more brainstorming needs to be done.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Deforestation in Uganda

Digging a little bit more into the Ugandan/Sub-Saharan Blogosphere the last couple of days has been lots of fun! This last post on Living Zach's Utopia was good for me. I had read a little about a deforestation project going in Uganda on GVO, but this put the issue more in the perspective of an environmental issue rather than a social/ethnic/whatever conflict. While I've always been concerned with the environment, having worked as an environmental advocate for the past year has made me more attentive to problems like deforestation. I only got a little way through the rest of Zach's posts, but hopefully I'll have time to get to some more. Zap!- up on my links column (dump).

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Ugandan Blogumentary

Just stumbled on this blog: A Ugandan Blogumentary. It’s authored by a group of Danish students who are working on a documentary about blogging in Uganda. They’d like to show the greater diversity in Africa’s socio-economic makeup, deconstructing the view many outside of Africa have of the continent as a whole. In one post they give some of the terms local Ugandan “blogren” use.

I also liked their post about traveling north to get a different perspective on blogging, away from the yuppie blogging crowd of Uganda. Here they point out that the Diocese of northern Uganda utilizes blogging mainly as a donor tool- quite a change from the purposes of the Kampala bloggers.

Looking ahead at a possible project, I was caught by the insensitivity my vision has towards the much more basic needs of northern Ugandan IDPs. Why would they care about blogging when they live barely a subsistence life-style? Then again, if the Diocese is more successful by using blogging and the internet, then perhaps it is in their interest. If local NGOs can better utilize the internet, then maybe they too can have a better chance at making a difference. How can technology be used in a constructive, local way? Is there space for this in a land where the infrastructure is so limited? I wonder…

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A Shift Towards Africa

Hello again. After a rather lengthy break I've finally worked up the courage to post an update. There were a number of reasons for the intermission, including lack of time and lack of a clear vision of what I wanted to do with this space. Originally I had hoped to continue my investigation of the Iranian blogosphere. While I am still of course interested in this group, I have expanded my areas of interest. I am thinking specifically of shifting focus towards other geographic locations. Much of this has to do with the fact that I have decided to spend some time abroad traveling/working/volunteering. I'd really like to take advantage of this time to explore various regional blogospheres and the communities that they are created around. For this reason I'm hoping to use this blog as a springboard for ideas about this topic.

The majority of my trip will be spent in several locations in Africa. Right now likely places are Kampala (Uganda), Arusha (Tanzania) and Cape Town (South Africa), although nothing has been set in stone. Most likely I will be volunteering in these locations with groups that I hope to make contact with in the near future. Without much specialized skill my options are both vaguely wide and limited by experience. However, I definitely have some ideas about integrating my interest in blogging and volunteering. I'm specifically thinking of creating some sort of program that would link my hometown community here in the US with the communities I live with over in Africa. I feel that I could optimize this trip by educating both groups about the other and connecting them through the internet.

The obvious limitation on this idea is the fact that Africa is generally very poor, has very limited infrastructure, and lacks easy internet accessibility. I don’t know much about the specifics, but I can guess that the internet is limited mostly to large urban areas, that connection speed and technology are unwieldy, and that only the rich can afford to connect. While I see this as a major obstacle to any sort of internet outreach project, I also see it as a potentially exciting opportunity to increase access for people who might not have a chance otherwise. Thus, much of the work in Africa would focus on increasing this accessibility and training. Possible means of doing this would be by providing the necessary as well as training students and others on how to use computers and the internet (including, obviously, blogs).

I would imagine that there are possibly other projects already going on that are doing what I’m envisioning. No doubt bloggers in countries like Tanzania or Uganda probably work to increase blogging and internet usage in at least a limited way. I definitely would like to link up with these people/groups and learn how I can integrate my effort with them.

Embarking on this quest to explore new blogging communities is daunting. My experience with the Iranian blogosphere has taught me how ephemeral, fragile, and malleable these communities are, not to mention how vast the blogosphere landscape is. It took me months to feel somewhat comfortable with even just the Iranian English-blogging subset. Of course, I’ve begun my investigations by tapping my favorite global blogging index. I think I’ll need to make some further inquiries however.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Answer to Networks Question

Thanks to Paris for responding back to my question about networking literature on Sounds Iranian. I've found an number of interesting articles on the suggested site, Shirky.com

I guess the most profound thing about weblogs, which has very slowly and very subtly dawned on me since I first began studying blogs almost two years ago, is the model they have served as a revolutionary source of communications. This idea can be best summed up, as it is in the article I read: "Weblogs are the best attempt we've seen to date of making freedom of speech and freedom of the press the same freedom." What an amazingly true phrase. And yet, as this same article points out, this same "freedom" does not result in the same utopian equality that one might be tempted to think it would, or might hope for. Social interaction creates hierarchy and inequality, and this phenomenon plays out just as much online as it does anywhere else.

I like that the article above and this one here set up the problem as such: "Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality."

The conclusion was also interesting:


At the head will be webloggers who join the mainstream media (a phrase which seems to mean "media we've gotten used to.") The transformation here is simple - as a blogger's audience grows large, more people read her work than she can possibly read, she can't link to everyone who wants her attention, and she can't answer all her incoming mail or follow up to the comments on her site. The result of these pressures is that she becomes a broadcast outlet, distributing material without participating in conversations about it.

Meanwhile, the long tail of weblogs with few readers will become conversational. In a world where most bloggers get below average traffic, audience size can't be the only metric for success. LiveJournal had this figured out years ago, by assuming that people would be writing for their friends, rather than some impersonal audience. Publishing an essay and having 3 random people read it is a recipe for disappointment, but publishing an account of your Saturday night and having your 3 closest friends read it feels like a conversation, especially if they follow up with their own accounts. LiveJournal has an edge on most other blogging platforms because it can keep far better track of friend and group relationships, but the rise of general blog tools like Trackback may enable this conversational mode for most blogs.

In between blogs-as-mainstream-media and blogs-as-dinner-conversation will be Blogging Classic, blogs published by one or a few people, for a moderately-sized audience, with whom the authors have a relatively engaged relationship. Because of the continuing growth of the weblog world, more blogs in the future will follow this pattern than today. However, these blogs will be in the minority for both traffic (dwarfed by the mainstream media blogs) and overall number of blogs (outnumbered by the conversational blogs.)


Reading all this brings out the existential questions I have about my own blog. What's my goal? Does it fall in line with the way I utilize it? Who is my target audience? Do I want an audience at all, or is this for myself (as I often assume, but don't always act according to)?

Regardless, I think that the second article strikes a chord with my desire to shift, however slightly, the perspective of this blog. I have an idea for its new structure, but I haven't really had the chance or the motivation to change it. Maybe soon.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Network Theory in Blogging

I'm fairly certain that anyone concerned with studying the dynamics of the blogosphere (including myself) would do well to start with a thorough study of network theory. It seems an obvious but often overlooked starting block. I myself have little specialized knowledge of this field. In any case, I think that the role of composite and summary blogs like GVO would be better understood if network analysis were done on blogging networks.

Link dump time: I'd like to make a note of this blog in order to perhaps explore it later.

I am toying with moving either towards covering more places I would ideally like to travel to, or language practice. I suppose I could combine both as well. In either case I think that this space might be used more effectively (i.e. for my own purposes) than it currently is. Nous allons voir, non?