Just Married

I’ve been away from the web for a while because I was in Olivone, Ticino, Switzerland getting married!

Thanks to friends and family who came from so far away to witness such a special day.

And thanks also to our wonderful vendors, who made the day go so well. If you are thinking of putting on a wedding in Blenio, give these guys a call:

It feels different to be married. It seems like it shouldn’t… the house is the same, we still sleep on the same sides of the bed. But it’s different. Good. And safe. And happy. And… different.

Viva gli sposi, all of them, whereever they are in the world. This is why getting married is special! Now I know!

Comparing Geographical Sizes

A long time ago I thought it would be fun to open two windows and see two things on Google Maps next to each other. That way, I could compare the sizes of them. But getting the scale set the same on both maps was not easy. Wouldn’t it be neat if the scale of the maps was set to the same?

I finally got around to implementing this with Google Maps API:

To test it out, type “Liberia” in the left one. Then type “Switzerland” into the right one. Zoom one in and out and notice how the other one changes. You can also see the page alone in it’s own page.

As usual with Google maps apps, view source (in the iframe) to see how it’s done. The tricky bit is removing and adding the event handlers so that you do not create a notification loop. The auto-sizing code is nifty too, if I do say so myself.

Update: My good buddy Andrew pointed out that this has already been done.

Vanity Fair on Iceland

I became aware of Iceland’s bankruptcy through a curious route. A local geek mailing list had a posting from a friend of one of the guys on the list. She was Icelandic, and she was really in distress — able to understand how serious the situation was, unable to understand it at the same time, scared for the future, and reaching out to a friend. It was really touching. I replied to the guy that it was a shame I couldn’t access any of the Icelandic news as an English speaker, and that perhaps his friend would like to start a blog translating it, so that I could understand her country’s situation better. I offered to donate some money for the service.

It took off. NewsFrettir has consistent readership, and has been helpful to the girl, if not from by making a dramatic amount of money, at least as an emotional outlet and support. It always helps to know someone’s listening, that someone cares what’s happening to you.

I come back from time to time and check it out, to see how it’s going for the girl I “met” anonymously last October. She’s strong. She’s weak. She’s above all, human. She’s struggling, but what makes her struggle all the more is her empathy for those struggling around her. I think about her and hope for the best. I donate some more money from time to time, but it’s not so easy for me either — I’m on a student’s budget as well, because I’m living alongside my student girlfriend in a country where I don’t have the right to work. (I’m not complaining, this is exactly what I want from life, and what I chose. But I’m unemployed, and I have the budget to match.)

Now, there’s another piece of the puzzle. Vanity Fair has published an article on Iceland. It gives me another view, and while it doesn’t change what I’ve already learned about one woman there, and how she feels about the changes in her community, it also shows me some other sides to the story.

And on a relatively unrelated aside…

One really great quote from the story is:

You can tell a lot about a country by how much better they treat themselves than foreigners at the point of entry. Let it be known that Icelanders make no distinction at all. Over the control booth they’ve hung a charming sign that reads simply, all citizens, and what they mean by that is not “All Icelandic Citizens” but “All Citizens of Anywhere.”

This observation is so, so, so true. The borders of the USA and the UK always make me scared, depressed, and annoyed. And I’m a middle-class white guy, with the right passport. I have the right to pass these borders and they still make me cringe. Imagine how other, more desperate, people feel?

Landlords РLes Propri̩taires

This posting on Boing Boing reminded me of something I wanted to mention about Switzerland. Though I sometimes makes it sound like heaven, with beautiful Swiss girls begging to marry you, cows that give chocolate milk when you milk them, and every man with an assault rifle, that’s not the whole truth.

Swiss landlords are crazy. And Swiss people, who have a certain zeal for social harmony, indulge them. Here are some examples:

  • In my second apartment in Lausanne, the landlord took me to the color coded chart and explained in detail which days of which weeks (morning or afternoon) we had access to the laundry room. Perhaps it was my weak French, but it seemed awfully complex to me — certainly not “1st floor, Thursday”, 2nd floor Wednesday”. So then she took me into the laundry room and showed me the electrical meter I was supposed to read before and after my laundry, and the logbook I was supposed to write the readings into.  I asked, “because we have to pay for the electricity?” She said, “no, just to know”.
  • In our friend’s apartment, there was a recurring “problem” with handmade signs on the mailboxes. A note popped up next to them: “Dear tenants, We would like to remind you that it is strictly prohibited to affix notes on your own box. Please address yourself to the building superintendent, who has the proper materials should you desire to put a note on your box.” The notes in question were “Pas de publicité, svp”, which is the Swiss solution to Direct Mail. Since every post box in the country has that note, the direct marketers print 20% what they once did, then they recycle 100% of what they do print (as it is returned by the post office because all the boxes have the little notes). Problem solved.
  • At another friend’s apartment, there’s another colorful and excessively complicated diagram showing which of the three flats cleans the stairway and entrance hallway on which week. There’s a little note at the bottom that suggests that Saturday morning would be the best time to do it.

There are a lot of people who hate Switzerland after a few weeks (due to the pervasive, quiet, constructive but a little creepy pressure to conform). It always makes me happy when I contemplate those people and know that I’m not one of them, and that no matter where Marina and I travel, Switzerland will always be home.


Un article sur BoingBoing m’a rappelé quelque chose que j’ai voulu dire au sujet de la Suisse. Bien que des fois je la décrire comme quelque type de paradis, avec des femmes suisses qui veulent vous épouser, les vaches qui donnent du lait chocolat, et chaque homme avec sa fusil de assaut… mais c’est pas la vérité entier.

Les propriétaires suisses sont fous. Et les suisses, qui ont un certain zèle pour l’harmonie sociale, leur cèdent. Voici, certains des exemples:

  1. Chez mon second appartement à Lausanne, la propriétaire m’a montré un tableau coloré et m’a expliqué (en détail) pendant quels matins ou après-midis des quels jours des quels semaines nous avons eu accès à la laverie. Peut être il était au cause de ma français faible, mais cela me semblait terriblement complexe — certainement pas si simple que “premier étage: jeudi”, “second étage: mercredi”. Puis, elle m’a montré le compteur électrique ou je devait relever le chiffre avant et après de faire la lessive, et le registre ou je devait écrire les mesure. J’ai demander, “parce que nous devons payer pour l’électricité?” Elle m’a dit, “Non, c’est juste pour savoir…”
  2. Chez une amie, il y avait “une problème” récurrente avec des affiches fait à main sur les boites à postes. Un annonce est apparue à coté d’eux: « Cher locataires: Nous vous voulons rappeler que c’est strictement interdit de attacher des affiches sur votre boites à lettres vous-même. S’il vous plaît, vous adressez chez le superviseur du bâtiment où vous trouverez des matériaux convenables. Â» Ces affiches disaient « Pas de publicité, svp. Â», la solution suisse pour éviter le publicité par poste. Parce que presque chaque boite à lettres dans le pays a cette affiche, les publicitaires impriment 20% de ce qu’ils faisaient jadis. Puis ils recyclent 100% de ce que ils impriment – tous sont retournés par la poste parce que toutes les boites ont les affiches. Problème résolu!
  3. Chez un autre ami, il y a un autre tableau aux couleurs vives et excessivement compliqué qui explique quel des trois appartements doit nettoyer les escaliers et le foyer chaque semaine. Il y a un petit note au fond qui suggère que les matins des samedis seront les meilleures temps de la faire.

Il y a pas mal de gens qui détestent la Suisse après quelques semaines là-bas (au cause de le omniprésente, tranquille, constructive, mais légèrement sinistre pression de conformer). Chaque fois que je pense à eux, ça me fait sourire parce que je sais que je ne suis pas une des ces personnes. Peu importante où Marina et moi allons voyager, la Suisse sera toujours chez nous.

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!”

An Interview with a DVD-man

Rare is the dinner in an expat restaurant in Africa which is not (politely and quietly) interrupted by a DVD-man. They have a stock of DVD’s in their backpacks, and work their way through the restaurant giving you a chance to peruse their wares. You have to see the DVDs to believe them, they are made up of several pirated Hollywood movies, with many different versions, all on one disc, enclosed in a professional-looking full color envelope. They have titles like “Segal vs Chan”… a DVD full of Steve Segal and Jackie Chan movies. Another great title is “Superhero Schoolwork”, including Spiderman, Superman, and Wonderwoman (and all the sequels thereof). The DVD’s are billed as “50 in one”, though it requires some clever counting to find 50 movies on one disc. Typically, there are more like 12 movies on a DVD — in itself an impressive achievement of DVD mastering and compression-algorithm optimization.

Today, at lunch, I was talking about an idea with Steve for how how to coopt the media in Africa. At that instant, a DVD-man came up to the table to offer his wares. I took the chance to do some market research, to figure out how his business works to feed in some ground-based-reality into my scheme.

The young man is named Mohammed. He is alone now, his father was has last relative and he died in 2005. Years ago (perhaps 5 or so) he met a woman on the beach. She was an Indian, a visitor to Sierra Leone. She worked for a bank. They started talking about his school, and how to raise enough money for his school fees. She decided to “invest” in Mohammed by giving him a gift of 100,000 leones (in today’s currency, about USD 30). With that, he bought movies and started walking around after school selling them.

After Steve and I had talked to him a while, I asked him for the “financials” of his business. It should be noted, at the beginning of our conversation, he was reluctant to talk about his business, I suspect out of fear that we were investigating piracy. Here’s how it works out… the DVDs are available one at a time from a wholesaler for SLL 8000 per disc. He sells them for SLL 10000, for a profit of SLL 2000 per disc. Mohammed keeps a stock of around 50 discs right now (“51”, he proudly told me!). His inventory has gone as high as 81 discs. He started his business years ago with 25 discs, bought using the initial capital from his Indian benefactress.

Perhaps there is a discount for buying in bulk, but Mohammed didn’t mention it. I suspect he rarely has the capital to replenish his stock. Instead, Mohammed’s business model is just like any extremely small business: he constantly balances how much money he can take out of his business to pay for school fees with how much he needs to reinvest disc by disc to replenish his stocks. I found it interesting as well that he remembered his exact highest inventory with pride — for Mohammed, his inventory is his life’s savings. Can you imagine the risk and the burden of carrying your life’s savings on your back? What if they are stolen? What if the price of DVD’s collapses?

Steve bought a DVD, “Harrison Ford Mega Pack”. That’s SLL 2000 more profit for Mohammed, but not enough to pay this week’s school fees. Here’s hoping he sells some more discs today…

As an aside, Mohammed told us that you can buy DVD’s mastered and manufactured in Nigeria for only SLL 6000. Theoretically, you can sell them for SLL 10000, just like the ones that Mohammed sells, which come from China. But Mohammed says that the Nigerian discs are lower quality and though they offer double the profit, if you sell them to a customer and it does not play right, then you lose a customer. He prefers to sell the lower profit and higher quality merchandise from China.

Steve and I were thinking about it a bit, and it’s true: when you buy these DVD’s on the street, in the marketplace, or in a restaurant, it’s just a throw of the dice if it will work. On our travels, we’ve both bought DVD’s that didn’t play right. There are certain brands of pirated DVDs that look good, and in practice prove to be good. One brand that looks particularly good is “UPS”. The pirates just took the UPS logo and slapped it on their discs, and it works! It looks professional, and it turns out the pirates professional enough to pirate a logo as well as the content, make good discs! Mohammed is right; customers prefer the Chinese discs.

This is field economics at it’s best. What a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon in Freetown!

Too Much Travel is Bad for the Soul

There’s an interesting little nugget of reality near the end of the first page of Ask the Pilot this week:

If I have grown more cynical in recent years, it is travel, I think, that has pushed me in this direction. Exploring other parts of the world is beneficial in all the ways it is typically given credit for… But traveling can also burn you out, suck away your faith in humanity. You will see, right there in front of you, how the world is falling to pieces; the planet has been ravaged, life is cheap, and there is little that you, as the Western observer, with or without your good conscience, are going to do about it.

This is something I discovered a while ago as well. Perhaps it is because my work with MSF always takes me to shitholes (*). But even when I happen to not be in a shithole, I find that the cultural constants I find alongside the beautiful ones like “love of family”, “pride in home”, etc are the ugly ones: corruption, apathy, greed. There are just not enough of us on the us team, and way too many them.

I take exception to Patrick’s injection of Western values and/or class into it. It’s just true that everywhere in the world there are shitheads and they are intent on pulling down that which society is struggling to put up around them. If you took a poor African on a tour of all of the sad things you can see in the rich world, he’d start feeling cynical and sad too.

* And I do mean shithole in the kindest, most respectful way. I’m always humbled by how proud people are of home in all the different forms home takes — even the shitholes. And no matter what form home takes, it’s residents should always have their human rights protected.

Update: Read to the end of the article for a touching snapshot inside the heart of a humanitarian worker. What am I doing? Why? Is this right? Is this misguided? All I know is it’s what I’m supposed to be doing…for this hedgehog.

Debugging our way around Sumatra

I last wrote from Padang, where we were looking into the state of the technology and looking to see if NGOs responding to the earthquake there needed help with it. What we found is that the technology needs were well in hand, either because the needs were not dire or because people had what they needed already. We met the operator of a small wireless ISP who educated us on where he buys equipment, how much locally purchased things like towers cost, and so on. It was a really excellent visit.

We also talked to the field coordinator for the MSF Beglium emergency team working in West Sumatra. She told us she was getting along just fine with her laptop, her cell phone, and a cable that let her access the Internet with GPRS. In fact that night at the airport we saw another young woman doing the same thing. There is also the much faster 3G over CDMA Internet service here. Getting info about the price was difficult and confusing, but it is clearly the right tool for disaster relief workers. If you have CDMA service in your area, then it is hard to beat it for ease of setup and take down. This is the same lesson that we learned in New Orleans, where Verizon’s 3G wireless service kept an Internet cafe online at the Common Ground Collective for many weeks.

Here’s where we went in Sumatra: we hired a driver in Padang and went the long way to Bukit Tinggi via Solok. We witnessed quite a lot of destroyed buildings, but the earthquake response was in full gear and both the government and the International NGOs had what they needed to get the job done without us sticking our nose in the way. From Bukit Tinggi, we drove back down to Padang. In addition to being educational, the drive was extremely beautiful.

Next we flew to Medan, which is a quite modern city with a western-style mall. It was interesting to see what things were available in the Ace Hardware store, and in the Acer and Nokia company stores. We moved on from Medan to Banda Aceh. After just a short 2 hour plane flight, I felt like I was in a different world, kind of like being back in Liberia. Aceh was under-served by government for 30 years during the struggle for independence, and it shows… but only on the surface. The economy and the local government structures are all working fine. The other thing that is evident about Aceh is that the economy is still fueled by the NGOs. About 80% of the cars at the airport had NGO logos on them, and I even got to see one of my beloved HZJ78 Land Cruisers, which I haven’t seen since I left Liberia.

Our hosts are International Medical Corps. They let us stay in their guest house in exchange for doing some IT work for them. We worked a few days, cleaning up computers and adding a DHCP server to the network. Their VSAT connection, at about 128 kbit/sec is fast enough to be comfortable. I proposed to speed it up some by adding a ClarkConnect server, but the site manager was unwilling to add something new to the network before he leaves in a few weeks. Fair enough.

We spent a nice weekend at Pulah Weh, where we got to see where the expats go for weekend breaks. The food was ok, and the snorkling was pretty good. The bathrooms were typical Indonesian ones, which don’t take much getting used to once you have mastered Moroccan toilets. There is a diving center there that looks very nice, and I am considering going back there for a bit of a vacation to take my PADI Open Water certification, if the work slows down. Though I think I will take a van instead of a motorcycle next time: I was chased by a really mean monkey, and I don’t want to face him again from the back of a motorcycle!

We caught the regular IMC shuttle down the coast to Lamno. The site manager there had recently sent a request to his boss to have an IT guy come from Banda. Since Jon and I were in the neighborhood, it made sense for us to come on down.

Lamno is a village on the western coast of Aceh, about a 2 hour drive away from Banda. It has a relaxed atmosphere, and because the main street was set far back from the ocean, it survived the tsunami relatively untouched. Of course, like everywhere along the coast, many people died, but the infrastructure survived and that has made it a good base of operations for NGOs, which in turn is good for the local people.

Here the VSAT is only 64 kbit/sec, and you can feel it. They were already using Windows Internet Connection Sharing, so we were able to simply replace that not-very-good NAT and DHCP server with a much better ClarkConnect server. The result is better NAT and DHCP, a transparent web proxy, and a file server which people can use to share documents. The web proxy was the biggest improvement. We can see in the logs that we are getting lots of hits to the cache, especially on the graphics used in Yahoo Mail, which is the primary mail provider for the staff. Every time something is served out of cache, it feels faster to the user and reduces the demand on the satellite link. The other thing we have done is convert most people to using Firefox with Adblock Plus, further reducing the bandwidth by stripping out many ads.

While we were here, another NGO asked if they could put wifi gear up to share the Internet connection. I did a little feasibility study to make sure their equipment would be professionally installed and not conflict with what was already here, etc. I was pleased to recommend that they set up the link as soon as possible.

We have cleaned up lots of viruses and trojan horses, and confirmed that all the computers are using DHCP and getting the benefit of the ClarkConnect server. We will move on soon, perhaps along the coast to Calang, or back to Banda where we have a meeting with a potential client on Saturday.

One really pleasant thing about working in Indonesia is that people constantly drink dark, rich Acehense coffee (kopi aceh), and contantly offer it to you. So we enjoy a cup of coffee now and then during the day. This morning, Jon and I discovered a great breakfast place where you can have a donut or a little pastry with custard in it. The man brewing the coffee does a theatrical job of filtering it and pouring it into the cup. You really have to just come here and see it, I can’t describe it.

The weather here in Lamno is better than in Banda. There is a nearly constant breeze, and the temperature seems to be a bit lower breeze or none. The sunsets are great, and up above the orange horizon you can spot gigantic fruit bats with wingspans of at least 3 feet making their nightly trip from the caves at the ocean up to the mountains to feed. Being fruit bats, we can’t count on them to eat the mosquitos. But something must be eating them, because there are not many bugs here at all.

Hello Pandang, Indonesia

So I have neglected to write an update for a very long time. Here’s a tiny update to give you a taste of things to come in the next few weeks.

I got back from Morocco and settled into my home away from home in Switzerland. I met Marina, a former coworker from MSF who I met in Liberia. We traveled around Switzerland seeing old friends of hers. I practiced some Italian, went cross country skiing, and spent quite a while sick as a dog from a stupid cold I got in Ticino.

I returned to the US and hit New York where I talked to MSF, then Seattle where I saw my nephew and his parents, then on to Portland, Roseburg, and San Francisco. It was great to see the family and friends on the west coast.

I have had enough vacation, and I have been looking for my next job. I talked to the founder of Humanlink about working in Indonesia opening his first office there. The job would have been 3 months, and would have interrupted my MSF career temporarily, which would have been ok, but maybe not so good. The timing wasn’t good anyway because I wanted to be in San Francisco in late April to see Marina again when she comes through the US on a month long trip.

A week ago or so there was a sizable earthquake in Padang, Indonesia on the island of Sumatra. Jon decided to change plans and do a 1 month exploratory mission, starting in Padang and seeing where Humanlink could be helpful. He invited me to come along for the trip, and since it fits into my plans perfectly, I decided to come along.

So on Wednesday night we left San Francisco and then we had a 30 hour long Thursday due to crossing the international date line. I went to sleep last night wondering if my watch would EVER change to Thursday! I woke up this morning refreshed, and now I am at the government’s office for coordinating relief work. The situation here is completely under control, because Indonesia is very practiced now, and because the earthquake was small and did not effect government in the big city. Tomorrow we will head out to the country where the damage is and meet with CARE, MSF, Medcins du Monde and others and get a feel for how they are doing, if we can help, and how we will be able to help next time once Humanlink has the base here up and running.

We will head on to Aceh, where there is much more development work going on. We will fly up there on Monday afternoon.

I will post more info about what we are exploring, and finding, in the next few weeks. In the mean time, go to Humanlink’s website to see what Jon’s vision is.