No, not 300, that’s a movie. 350. Parts per million CO2 concentration.

Pass the word. Oh, right, it’s just a number, not words…

PS: This posting does not constitute an admission that CO2 causes global warming. But I happen to agree with everything that anti-carbon campaigners believe in, even if I think that global warming is a hoax. And this is a nifty animation with cool music, so I’m posting it anyway.

The OC

(Good lord is this a day for blogging. I suppose sometimes the dam breaks and the thoughts spill out…)

Today I got a question from Jon:

What is OCA and OCP? MSF is getting into the acronym business like everyone else!

The simple answer: OC = Operating Centre, or Cell depending on the person.

  • OCB – Brussels
  • OCA – Amsterdam
  • OCBA – Barcelona/Athens
  • OCG – Geneva
  • OCP – The mythical Parisian OC, which does not exist as far as I know

An OC is supposed to be a reflection of the difference between the hosting section, which has a responsibility to communicate with the people of the country for temoinage and fundraising, recruit, etc and the OC, which has a responsibility to all of the donor sections that contribute to it to get the work done, and report back what got done, so that the donor section can explain to their constituency what got done with the $$.

MSF France, of course, rejects this model, because along with being fundamentally logical and democratic, it would also result in them having to actually listen to what MSF USA and AU think. The donors to OCB sit on a board and control the work plan of the OCB — MSF Belgium only has one seat on the board, just like MSF USA, MSF, Canada, and the other donors.

So, as far as I know, OCP is a figment of the imagination of whoever wrote it. People who don’t fundamentally understand the governance change with the rise of the OC’s often make the mistake of thinking that the OC’s are just new names for the operations departments of the hosting sections. In the case of “OCP”, that’s true — it is a new name for business as usual.

Long Term Data Storage

I was thinking about data archival the other day because David Hagan was telling me about one time when he spoke to a group of librarians and told them to expect a data gap starting in 1950 and extending until we get serious about data preservation. According to David, the time when we stopped being able to save data was in the 50’s because xerography (which is the same as laser-printer technology) came into existence then. All other data archival techniques (magnetic storage on tape or disk, recordable CD’s, etc) are inferior to toner pressed onto paper, which is itself inferior to ink soaked into paper fibers. And, come to think of it, ink on paper is inferior to marks on clay tablets — though ink on paper has proven to be stable enough, since we use knowledge today gleaned from papyrus scrolls from thousands of years ago.

So this thread popped up on Slashdot, and made me think about it again.

Let’s go back to marks on clay for a second. Why are they the best data archival we know of? Because they are information storage in a physical arrangement of a chemically stable material. The key to data longevity is to recognize these two things, I think:

  • Data is stored by arranging some physical quantity in a measurable way
  • The longevity of the data is related to the stability of the physical quantity

A few observations:

  • The cost of data storage is related to the economics of the physical quantity used to represent the data, and the logistics of moving it past a reader. Magnetic spots on spinning platters = cheap; holes in paper = expensive.
  • The digital era has been dominated by people reducing the cost (and a related dimension, size) of the physical quantity being manipulated to store data, by trading off longevity of the data itself.

So taking all that into consideration, it seems to me to way to solve the data longevity problem is to put the necessary research into reducing the costs and storage density on a stable medium.

And where do you find funding for research like that? Three places come to mind: fundamental research done by universities with government funding, and foundation funding for work that relates to their vision, and venture capital to productize something that’s theoretically possible, but not yet a proven business.

People interested in this kind of thinking would also be interested in the Long Now Foundation. And I wonder if the Long Now Foundation would be interested in finding a cost-reduced, stable data store?

As for the vulture capitalists… what kind of business could be made from this opportunity? What if I made and operated the equipment to make archival an medium that took the form of “data artifacts”? I think I should I operate it as a manufacturing plant, taking data in and returning to the user the artifact with the data stored on/in it in a stable form. That lets me amortize the cost of my equipment across lots of data artifacts, which is good for the end-user as well. With the factory approach, there would be a fundamental question of data security, which would be easy to manage with open source (and thus transparent) encryption techniques. But the nice thing about the factory is that it would leave the safe storage of the artifacts in the hands of the customer. I don’t want to be on the hook for storing their data, and they don’t want to be paying rent to me to do it. Though there are lots of companies that currently pay rent to Iron Mountain to store physical artifacts of questionable value (hard disks are about the last place you should put data you want to ever see again *).

Here’s how the software side of it would work. I’m doing it first, because I’m a software guy, and an amateur encryption guy. Also, the software side is easy! You feed it a corpus of data to be stored, and it gives you several options and the current prices for implementing each of them. One option is RAID: it uses a N-of-M coding system, and offers to spit out M files, each of which need to be sent to be manufactured into an artifact. Then you need to store the M artifacts, and make sure that at least N of them survive and can be gathered into one place to be read. Another option the piece of software can offer the user is encryption, so that the artifact manufacturer cannot see the data. In fact, to protect the manufacturer from liability, I think I’d recommend that the software refuses to make output without encrypting it.

But encryption opens up the can of worms of how to keep the key next to the data forever. I propose epoxy. (No, I’m not kidding. KISS.)

And to protect the data owner and the manufacturer even more, there would be an independent foundation, operating with seed funding from the data archiving company, which manufactures and sells key artifacts at cost. That way, the key and the data are not sent to the same factory at the same time. They have a license to the patent covering the artifact creation equipment, but their license permits them to make artifacts only up to 100 kilobytes in capacity, which is enough to save the key and the meta-data on how to use the key, so that any mathematician 1000 years from now will be able to re-implement the stream cipher that the key material initializes.

So what are these artifacts? Well, that will be the object of the research, won’t it? The research program will come down to exploring this problem space for the sweet spot.

  • material longevity and cost
  • density of recording marks on the given material and the cost of recording them
  • reliability of reading equipment and the cost of reading the data

I suspect the right choice for cheap long term material will be some kind of ceramic (polymers are too chemically unstable and precious metals are, well, too precious). And I suspect the cheapest way to arrange that physical material into data will be to use a laser to burn spots onto it. Thus the reader will be a digital microscope with simple edge detection and decoding software.

No, I’m not making this up: I’m proposing to replace ink on paper with marks on clay.

Funny how the world turns, isn’t it?

* From Data Storage Technology Assessment – 2002 Projections through 2010:

High density HDD’s suffer more signal loss because the magnetic grain volumes are smaller. At high areal densities, the energy barrier between the thermal energy and the magnetic anisotropy of each magnetic particle is not high. Industry-established design criteria call for recorded data output loss of 1 dB or less per decade, or 2 dB loss over 20 years. A 2 dB data output loss is normally related to a bit error rate (BER) increase of X10 or less, which is well within the capability of the error correction system built into all data storage devices.

Decibels (dB) are a logarithmic measurement: the difference between 1dB of attenuation and 10dB of attenuation is exponential. The loss a mag tape or hard drive will undergo during 10’s of decades will result in a loss of any hope of recovering the data from within the background noise, error correction or no.

Malaria Medicine Advice

A friend sent me this question:

Speaking of healthy, when you’re in Africa, do you take malaria medication the whole time you’re there? Is 45 days too long to take it?

First, taking it 45 days is no big deal. It’s taking it for months on end (9, 18, 60) that is not recommended — not because of actual risks, but because of not enough study.

Second, here’s Jeff’s “cut-through-the-crap” guide to malaria meds:

  • Doxycycline: It’s an antibiotic which means you can get the side effects of long-term antibiotic exposure — development of resistance in the bugs, GI problems, and for women, yeast infections. On the other hand, those aren’t common, are easy to recognize, and switching off the doxy is easy. And the side-effects of low-level exposure to anti-biotics are also useful: you don’t have to worry so much about eating street food! For fair-skinned people, the most dangerous side effect is light sensitivity, but it’s not a common problem.
  • Lariam: This has a bad reputation because of side effects. 9 in 10 have no side effects. Of the 1 in 10 who have side effects, 9 in 10 overcome them in a couple weeks. The reason it has a bad reputation is that the side effects are psychological, not physical. So people get wigged out about it a lot more. If it works for you, it really works, and it’s better than the others. If it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work, and the process of finding that out is a little bit scary (sleep problems, depression, even risk of suicidal thoughts). But when you do the math, you see it’s 99% likely you’ll be in the first group. Taking it only once a week is a little hard to remember, but it less hassle than every day.
  • Malarone: It is expensive. It has less drawbacks than the others. Consider it the last choice — because it is guaranteed to work out nicely, but the others have useful features you should consider  before giving up and accepting the drawbacks of malarone.

I’ve taken all three. Right now, I use Lariam.

Third, no matter which you decide: TAKE IT. Malaria in white people ranges from a small case, which makes you completely useless for 1 to 2 weeks, to a major case which makes you completely dead for the rest of your life. It is easy to get confused, because malaria often presents itself in native Africans like the flu — a little under the weather, but they can still go to work. So you get confused and can’t remember why you are supposed to be taking your medicine for this thing that is only a minor inconvenience for your colleagues.

And to drive home point #3, two anecdotes:

  • A USAID official who worked in Ghana told me that every year in West Africa, Peace Corps has two or three volunteers die from malaria. Why? Because the kind of people attracted to Peace Corps are young, invincible hippies who are too cool to take their medication (and don’t believe in it anyway), and too cool to ask for help when they feel sick. So they get malaria, get complications, are too far from medical help, and die.
  • I once met an MSFer who told me he told his coworkers he was feeling a bit bad and left the dinner table early to get to bed. He woke up, 3 weeks later, in Paris, recovering from cerebral malaria. His colleagues found him comatose in the morning and arranged for his evacuation.

But to calm you back down now that I scared you, let me make this final point… when treated, malaria is not deadly to healthy people (neither to Africans, nor to whites). The complications from malaria (anemia, cerebral swelling, liver failure) are deadly, but they are not guaranteed, nor do they set in immediately. If you are pregnant or living with HIV/AIDS, then complications can rise much quicker. If you have a fever in malaria endemic areas, you must start Artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) as soon as possible. Don’t wait for a test, and do not wait to get to high class medical treatment. Find anyplace that has ACT and start yourself, even if they disagree and won’t start you. If you don’t respond in 24 hours, start the trip to find the best treatment you can (and keep taking the ACT during the trip).

PS: Best quote ever from a guy who did deadpan humor well: “Wow, I’m really having trouble sleeping… I don’t know why… I’ve been taking my Lariam every night before bed, and for some reason the side effects just aren’t going away!”

The Skills Exist, Use Them!

One of the headlines that came out of my trip to Freetown was “The Skills Exist, Use Them!”

First, a bit more about what I was doing there. I was on a contract with the Health Metrics Network, which is a project running under the auspices of the World Health Organization, but funded by the Gates Foundation. HMN is supposed to go around building a network, not of routers and switches, but people who understand the challenges of constructing and running health information systems. Those people should be researchers, technologists, and public health people. And those people should be a mix of those talking about it (easy to find in Geneva, they are douze pour une centime) and those doing it. The latter are a little harder to find…

Which brings us back to the headline, and what I was doing in Sierra Leone. Our colleagues in Sierra Leone were stuck. They have the will to be doers, but the project wasn’t moving. I went to give it a kick in the rear, and man did I. I had a great time, and I enjoyed getting to know my colleagues. It remains to be seen if we’ve unstuck the project and gotten it going. But for sure we’ve delivered something that has the potential to be transformative and to unlock people’s curiosity and creativity.

What I did was remarkably like what I did after Hurricane Katrina. I arrived in a hot and humid place, quite unfamiliar to me, and go to work. I dug through the boxes of stuff that my colleagues had ordered. I figured out what people there knew, what they wanted, what they were capable of, and what they needed. As usual, it is the consultant’s job to listen to people tell you what they want, then make them feel good about it when you give them something different. After the first day’s work (“the rapid assessment” in consultant-speak) we got to work.

We hired an electrician to install a big honkin UPS they had. I supervised that work, saying a quick prayer of thanks that MSF’s log school had given me a good lecture on three phase power. Our electrician did pretty good work, though he was a little unclear on the concept of ground. Once I remembered my British English (which I learned from RedR), and pointed out the “earth wire” he’d cut off and neglected to connect to anything, then he got with the program and we fixed things right up with a few quick patches.

I installed a little network, then went to do some network archeology and found an old network that had been forgotten and turned off. We got it back in service, then hooked it up to our little network extending all the way to the Minister of Health’s office. When the new zippy VSAT link is installed and stable in a few weeks, my colleagues will schedule a meeting with him to show him his snappy new access to the Internet and to the national health information system, and he’ll be blown away!

At least, that’s the plan. But why was I there? What sense can it possibly make to send a white dude from Leeds thousands of miles for only two weeks to run around yelling and throwing dollars at problems? Wouldn’t it be better to have local people do it?

In fact it would, and what it takes is a project manager with vision, able to engage and manage a local IT firm. I went to see if we had those pieces, as much as I went to kick the project in the butt with a concentrated bit of white-dude energy. What I found is some of the pieces. I found a local firm named Tiwai Memory Masters founded by two guys from the returned diaspora after the civil war. They know their stuff, and they’ve trained their young employees right. The boss of Tiwai wasn’t afraid to give me a little ribbing either: “My partner is going to complain about how you did that ground wire, but don’t pay any attention to him, he’s just picky.”

I didn’t bother pointing out that the ground wire was the electrician’s fault, not mine. I just took my lumps and smiled. I was smiling because I’d just seen the future of Sierra Leone: a smart techie, with a sense a humor, and pride in workmanship.

I came back and gave a presentation to the Talkers in Geneva. I told them: There are Doers in Sierra Leone, get them under contract and watch this thing fly!

Before I forget, if you want to see some pictures of African doers doing, take a look at these two links:

God I love those guys… they can make anything work. All they need is a reason to believe in themselves, and in their project. The Nigerians get paid their reason to believe every day — they hack hardware for profit. How can we get that energy redirected to work that makes lives better? Profit won’t be enough… what will?