Dealing with a clogged link

A friend asked me a question that reminded me of some great resources I want to mention here (in case I ever need to find them again…)

They are:

In my response to my friend, I also touched on something interesting I learned from Cricket, and from years as a consultant. Here’s the big lesson: Infrastructure projects don’t sell themselves.

Why? Because they are not sexy. Their payback is hidden down in the noise of day to day operations and (apparently) fixed costs. Once you get used to “we have to have 256 kbit/sec VSATs everywhere, and the WAN is too slow to do file sharing”, it appears to be the unchanging reality, the fixed costs that people just suck it up and pay. But if you measure a problem and show before and after pictures, then you can market the solution. It’s no secret that the farther up the management ladder you go the harder it is to explain what’s broken, why, and why it will cost $X to fix it. The charitable reasoning for why this is is that “those people are busy, they are big picture people”. The less charitable explanation is that the Peter Principle moves incompetent people up out of day-to-day work into management, where they need to be pandered to like children in kindergarten: “Ooooh, look at the pretty colors! OK, now sign here.”

We used to call it “the manager test”. Cricket passed the manager test because even a manager could understand Cricket’s output and agree to fund changes necessary to improve link utilization. At Microsoft, I can even remember one time that Cricket even managed to pass “the executive test”, when a link upgrade was going to be so expensive that a VP had to sign for it, and he only agreed to spend the money after seeing the graphs with his own eyes.

Pictures work. Everything else is a waste of time.

Here’s something else I wrote to my friend that I’d like to share:

It is the “measuring and marketing” part you need right now… Improving your bandwidth situation needs to be a stealth project, hidden under the covers of some other project.

This is how you raise the profile of and fund infrastructure projects, at least in dysfunctional environments where the hamsters in the wheelhouse need and want to be pandered to by bright colors and tender morsels of “synergy”.

PS: I’m keeping my friend anonymous, since we wouldn’t want his bosses to find this, on the off chance they might understand that the last sentence is talking about them. 🙂

La promesse grippe – The Flu Code

Vinay Gupta published something called the flu code. Here it is in French:

La promesse grippe 0.1Beta, version français – Une service dans l’intérêt publique de L’institute pour efrondnomiques

  1. Si j’ai des signes d’une grippe éventuel, je vais rester chez moi.
  2. Je vais rester à distance des foules quand c’est possible, et je vais toujours porter une masque dans les lieux publiques.
  3. Je vais laver les mains a la porte chaque fois je arrive a ma destination.
  4. Je vais me engager de enseigner ces règles aux autres de protéger tous.

The Economics of being a Hostage


Here’s an incredible inside view of the piracy business. What’s incredible is that NPR’s Channa Jaffe Walt managed to get a CEO of a shipping company on the phone and hear the inside story of the negotiations.

Here’s what’s really interesting. The first thing the CEO says is, “I never thought for a moment that I wouldn’t have to pay anything. The only question was how much, and when.” Channa asks him why and he says, “Look, there’s no one to turn to, we’re on our own out there and that’s all there is to it. You pay.”

I found it really interesting to compare that to humanitarian kidnappings, where paying a ransom is theoretically not allowed (though we know it happens sometimes), and even if it does happen it is a very very very last resort. For a shipping company, paying a ransom is the first resort! That’s the difference between water and land, between diplomacy and business. And how much safer and more pleasant it is for the hostages. I’m not making this up: I’ve read excerpts from a book by a former French pirate hostage, and I worked with a former MSF hostage. The hostages of the pirates have it easy, sleeping in their own beds, eating their own food, usually with constant communication to their families, and detention measured in weeks not months. Compare that to the story of Pilar Bauza (7 days sleeping under the stars, walking 100 km, little food and water) or Arjan Erkel (20 months of captivity with almost no communication).

Further, it would be interesting to know what the statistical measures are for survivability and psychological and physical comfort of hostages in the petroleum business versus humanitarians (both on land, but way more money at play for oil workers).

Finally, why is it the pirates manage to safely board ships without killing anyone, but humanitarians are sometimes killed before they are captured and ransomed?

All of which makes me wonder, what would it take, what fundamental change to put humanitarian aid hostages into the same relatively safer category as pirate hostages? Why do we get the shaft? (As usual, follow the money, and there you will find the answer.)

Other really incredible stuff from the story:

  • The ransom payers delivered an electric counter (complimentary, no less!) to try to speed the ship release process. Even so, the pirates counted and/or argued among themselves for 30 hours.
  • They keep timesheets so they know how much to pay each class of pirate!
  • There’s a supposition that the minimum wage for a unskilled guard on a captured boat is USD 1000, twice the average family income in Somalia. The attackers, who board the ship, make many thousands more.
  • The likely payoff for the underwriter is around 200% with a turnaround of less than one year. Try getting that from Wall Street!
  • There’s a delicate balance at work where the holder on the monopoly (the ship) needs to keep the ransoms in check lest they get too high and prompt the ships to defend themselves better such that the pirates lose their monopoly on the commodity.

A long trip in Afghanistan

This is an interesting story by a BBC correspondent, which pulls no punches. Easy to see why he was left feeling bitter.

There are two sides to every story of course, and I’m sure the military folks would tell you about security rules, zero tolerance for violation of force protection imperatives, risk asessments, etc, etc, etc. But that’s all missing the point. When you are doing counterinsurgency work, you have to be close to the people. You have to earn their respect by finding out what earns respect in their culture and then finding a way to do it inside of your own culture. They, in turn, will come to know you and, if you deserve it, you’ll earn their respect in return.

It’s not easy, and it’s not fair: they have the right to reject your cultural assumptions, but you have to understand and take into consideration all of theirs. That’s because you are the guest in their country, and it’s not easy to be the guest. But the nature of counterinsurgency is that you are making yourself a guest (by force no less). So suck it up and be a good guest.

Come on NATO guys, get it together. The Brits learned how to do this in Iraq once (in the early 1900’s). The Americans relearned it. Now it is time to hit the books and re-re-learn the lessons.

PS: Force protection is thinly disguised CYA (Cover Your Ass), which is, in turn, just another form of cowardice. You don’t have to be stupid and get killed, but if you happen to get killed doing something important, then so be it. Life is too short to hide behind “force protection” and not achieve legitimate goals like “safe schools”, “water for kids”, etc. Just do it!

My favorite things, all at once!

Yay for old friends, economics, and technology! All at once!

kc wrote a blog posting with her humble ideas on how to use IP address space tax. Wait… there’s a tax on address space? Yes, because it has become a scare quantity, because people are too lazy to move to IPv6, IPv4 address space is running out. The best of all bad ideas about what to do about this is to make an open market for address space, as though network addresses were some kind of useful piece of property with any kind of useful value. (BTW: When the present econolypse is over, and the next bubble starts, it will be an IPv4 address space bubble. Mark my words…) Address space is bits. We can make more bits… Look! I just made some! But because the value of a network exists in everyone who is using it, not just your implementation of the network, you can’t just add bits in your IP stack and get any benefit. So, while bits are free, and address space could conceiveably be free, because we have a network with limited space, we have a scarce asset. And, of course, what do humans do with scarce assets? We make bubbles! Yay for bubbles!

OK, now that we’ve gotten kc and tech checked off the list for this post, what about economics? Well, actually I touched on economics above, but there’s something way more fundamental to economics. Fundamental questions tend to be hard to recognize because they seem so obvious. The world would be a lot more sane place if more people took the time to ask this particular question and understand (no… really understand) the answer:

What is money?

In case you are not following me and don’t see why this is a hard question, see if any of these wrong/incomplete answers are floating in your head:

  • Money is the paper with green ink and dead guys on it. And red discs with the other dead guy on them, but it takes 100 of those red discs to make one of the green papers.
  • Money is dollars, euros, and yen. It’s what you spend when you want to buy something. You can change it to the other kind of money if there’s a different symbol in front of the price on the thing you want to buy.
  • Money comes from the government. The Fed sets the rate and it goes into banks, then I get it from the ATM.

These answers are all wrong. Not just a little bit wrong… they are like “the earth is flat” wrong, or “the sun goes around the earth” wrong.

So what’s the answer? I’ll tell you what… the answer is so hard that I certainly can’t tell you. You could earn two PhD’s and not really know. Money is something that humans invented after we invented trade, but before we invented numbers. That means it’s something that’s fundamental in the human condition, and that it is as human as culture and art. You might as well give up on the money question and work on a nice simple one like, “What is art?”.

But it wouldn’t be very nice of me to bring you this far and dump you with no ideas of what money is. What lead me to write this post is this great quote I found in one of the papers kc linked to in her blog posting. Here’s the quote:

The Nature of Money

My very great teachers (Alchian, 1977; Brunner and Meltzer, 1971) taught that a society uses as money that entity that economizes best on the use of other real resources to gather information about relative prices and to conduct transactions. This makes clear that the common — but wrong — statement of Gresham’s Law about “bad money” driving out “good money” needs to be restated. What we have observed through the millennia is that high-confidence monies drive out low-confidence monies (Hayek, 1976, p. 29; Mundell, 1998).

That’s academic speak, and it’s easier to understand if you read it in context. But what it’s basically saying is that “a culture will chose as money that thing which minimizes the costs for them to participate in the market to find the correct price for goods”.

That is profound. It’s very far removed from what we think about money when we are at the checkout counter at Tesco (which for me is usually “Gee, this yogurt will be 37 pence, I hope I have exact change and can make my pocket lighter”).

Here’s a related story from when I worked as an administrator in Liberia for Doctors Without Borders. A rumor was going around the country that “little head” dollars were no longer accepted by the bank. “Little head” dollars? This is Liberian shorthand to describe the difference between newly designed money with the large heads and other security features in them. The rumor, as they usually always are, was based in fact. When currency circulates outside of its place of origin, counterfeiting is easier to get away with. In Liberia, from time to time, I noticed bills that, if they’d been given to me as change in the USA, would have made me call the manager. But as long as the staff accepts them, it’s not my problem. Why do they accept suspicious money from me? Because they have no fear that the guy selling cement bags at the corner will refuse it. That guy in turn doesn’t know or care about counterfeit US dollars, and so the bill moves on through the system.

Banks who do international business don’t feel the same way about counterfeiting. Afterall, if a Liberian bank sends some counterfeit currency to London or New York, it’s not going to get passed on. It’s going to get subtracted from their total deposit amount. It won’t be investigated as a crime if it’s just one bill here or there, because it’s a drop in the ocean and the trail to the original counterfeiter has already gone cold — it was likely introduced by North Koreans into Kenya by way of India and made it’s way across to Liberia overland. There’s a certain cost of accepting money from areas with endemic counterfeiting. It’s perhaps 0.1%, but it’s there. That’s $1 per $1000, and it adds up.

Banks don’t just eat costs like that, they pass them on. One place that cost has showed up is in the exchange rate between USD and other currencies. The exchange rate between USD and Euros is different depending on the bill. Little heads low rate, big heads full rate. I don’t know who actually takes the fall for the fake bills — who’s account is debited when they are removed from circulation. But whoever loses that money is not bothered, because they’ve already covered the cost (and more) on the spread between their “little head exchange rate” and what the true exchange rate should have been that day.

OK, so back to Liberia. When the Liberian banks started charging a differential exchange rate (the same as their partner banks were doing in London), that reality-based fact morphed in the street into “the banks don’t take little heads”. The US Embassy put out a press release to try to stop the rumor. It said, “Dollars are dollars, big head or little. Every dollar anywhere on the planet can be exchanged for any other, and they are all dollars.” Which would be true, except it’s not. If you try to bring $10,000 from Liberia and spend them in the US, the odds that you have a counterfeit bill in there someplace are high enough that you’ve probably brought (on average) $9994 instead of the $10000 you thought you did.

In any case, a press release from the embassy certainly wasn’t enough to stop this story. Whether because they believed the rumor, or because they just didn’t want to be the only one not believing it (the musical chairs effect), within a few days the vendors stopped accepting little head notes. This was a few days before payday, and several staff brought the story to me, worried I would pay them in little head notes that they could not spend in the local market. I showed them the newspaper, and told them a dollar is a dollar. They told me, “a dollar I can’t spend isn’t a dollar”.

I’m going to repeat that, because it’s part of the answer to the question, “what is money?”

A dollar I can’t spend isn’t a dollar.

So, what to do? I called my boss in Monrovia, who’d had the same complaints. She made a quick decision: starting that moment, little head dollars no longer existed in the MSF system in Liberia. I was to find every little head dollar I had (a few hours work, in the end it was about 50 notes totaling about $550) and send them to her. She would send me back big head ones (thereby balancing our books). She’d send all of the little head dollars from the entire mission back to Geneva, and we’d change them there into francs and put them back into the budget at headquarters. Presumably she only chose non-suspicious bills to send back to Geneva, lest “MSF counterfeits dollars” were to show up in the newspapers the next day!

Problem solved. The staff loved me because I paid them in big head dollars. And I learned, first hand, a little bit more about what is money.

PS: Think rumors are funny? Managing rumors and knowing when to give up and get out of the way is serious business for humanitarian aid workers. Here’s an article about 3 Red Cross workers killed due to a rumor. My boss didn’t make the decision she made because she’s a nice lady. She decided this wasn’t a rumor that we were going to kill, and we needed to get the heck out of the way of it.

The New Yorker on Aid Work

There is a really excellent article on aid work in The New Yorker.

Though this is pretty much a write-only blog at this point, and I don’t really know if anyone cares, here are my reactions to the article:

  • It is remarkably candid, but…
  • it is too hopeless…
  • because it focuses too much on the UN and not enough on independent actors.

Of course, any reader of mine know my biases: I am a cynical humanist capitalist from Silicon Valley (engaged to be married to a practical humanist socialist from Switzerland), who chose to work with MSF due to it’s independence. Because this article speaks to the core of my identity, of course my biases are going to be the key to my understanding of it.

First, above all, it is remarkably candid about the reality of our work. There’s a funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad explanation of how UNHCR field people are reduced to writing reports about reports, and how in N’Djamena, they are compiled into reports about reports about reports and sent to Geneva. He found someone candid enough to tell him the MMM theory of relief workers. He hinted at, but unfortunately did not discuss at length, the fact that many (most?) international UN humanitarian workers are African expats who are doing it for the money as much as for love of the work. There is fertile ground (full of landmines) to be explored there: What does it do to the UN’s effectiveness that many of it’s field people don’t like their job but are trapped in it by economic forces? How can international workers be effective when their primary motivation is not solidarity with the beneficiaries, but with their family (and it’s bank account) back home? What’s the solution?

Next, I say the article is too hopeless. At least one reason it is hopeless is that the situation in Darfur and along the Chadian border with Sudan is so hopeless. It’s a political/economic situation, a proxy war between the West and China. It puts into opposition China’s need for resources and disinterest in international norms with the international humanitarian principles the west stands for. No big surprise what wins out: as usual, follow the money.

The other reason it is hopeless is because the journalist got the UN side of the story. The MSF side of the same story has its roots in our very reason to exist, the MSF charter. MSF is in Chad the same reason we are in any country: because patients need us. MSF has hundreds of stories to tell about people in Chad (refugees, citizens, rebels, soldiers, it doesn’t matter who) who needed help and MSF had the capacity in place to give that help, when and where it was needed. There’s something beautiful in that, and the journalist let the heat, the walled compounds, the driving sand, and the rebel attacks divert his attention from the beauty and the power of what it means to just be there, and to be human, alongside other humans. He came close: he personally experienced the pain we all feel when you can’t do enough for one, let alone for everyone. That’s human, and that’s the hard part of the job.

He missed reporting on the the humanitarian imperative, which is too bad. Did he miss it because his hosts at UNHCR and WFP also are missing it? Or was it there, and he just blew it as a journalist? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and I don’t blame him one bit.

Which brings me to my final critique, which is that he doesn’t cover the story from outside the UN bubble enough. But there’s enough other brilliant journalism about MSF and other actor’s work, so perhaps it is valuable just to have the UN story.

Go, read. This article has won a place in my bibliography of humanitarian aid stuff.

PS: The headline is “Lives of the Saints: International hardship duty in Chad”. Headlines are often picked by editors long from the story, and I hope this one was. The people the author talked to undoubtedly told him that aid workers hate to be called heros, saints, or anything other than simply their job title (e.g. log, nurse, protection officer). Our work is too important and too dangerous for us to tolerate show-off heros as colleagues for very long. The professionals in the highest leagues of humanitarian aid (and he met some of them) know they are neither saints, nor heros and they never allow someone to call them one.

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!”

HQ folks: Don’t Do This

Hopping on the meme-wagon for a second here… if you care enough, read these three posts about paper pushing in the NGO world:

In the last one, Paul considers what happens after the reports make it to HQ, from the point of view of field people:

…it seems there is no such impact. Country offices receive little or no feedback on their reports, and individual staff receive none. It’s also hard to identify any link between the reports that are generated in-country and any strategic decision-making, although it’s clear that there is some benefit there.

I know this feeling for sure. I once had a bigwig come and waste time in a field planning meeting asking questions that made it crystal clear he didn’t read the reports. In addition to impeding the work of the organization by wasting our time and depressing our morale, he made me lose respect for him and for HQ, which probably tainted my decision making processes for some time after that.

HQ people: be professional, do your homework, and read the reports before you go on a field trip. I know it’s a lot to take in, but if you don’t thrive on reading and integrating information, you shouldn’t be in HQ. Go get a nice cushy job as a project manager in some shithole in the middle of a warzone. No tsunami of reports to read there… and you only have to write one once a month. As you yourself have already proved, no one reads them anyway, so you won’t have to put too much time into them…

That is all.

In Search of Deviants

Positive Deviance is a somewhat unnecessarily complicated name for something deeply humane and useful:

In every village, there is at least one woman (usually a few) whose children are healthier than the rest. For whatever reason, that woman is better at navigating the complexities of village life and child nutrition. That woman has knowledge and skills which can be taught. You find her, you learn from her, you support her to teach her peers. That is positive deviance.

I’m collecting references to what Aid-Work 2.0 looks like, and this is part of it, I think.

With all due respect Mr Holmes…

You can kiss my ass.

Talking about the risks faced by humanitarian workers, you said:

People in this business have always accepted the risks, there have always been losses, there have always been horrific incidents

There is NO SUCH THING as acceptable losses for humanitarian aid. Period.

PS: I noticed that, according to your bio, you’ve never even worked in the field. So please do not count my life and the lives of my colleages as “acceptable losses”. Thanks.