Monthly Archives: July 2010

A Sarcastic Punctuation Mark. How Necessary.

Sarcmark logo vs. OpenSarcasm logo

This is ridiculous. Did you know that there is a on-going debate regarding the proper means of punctuating sarcasm? It’s true. Apparently, a company called SarcMark has recently filed a patent on their new, copyrighted, sarcasm punctuation mark. It’s the spiral-designed one on the left of the picture above. Meanwhile, to counter their move, a group known as Open Sarcasm has rebutted the claim, stating that there already exists a sarcasm punctuation mark thanks to the Ethiopic writing system. Convenienty enough for the type-setters and font foundries out there, the symbol is exactly the same as the upside-down exclamation point used in Spanish. No new addendums are necessary, unlike the SarcMark method.

My concern over this argument is not which of the two punctuation marks is the more correct mark, though from a logistics standpoint, I would go with the Open Sarcasm method because it already exists in Unicode compatible type-sets. Instead, my problem is with the notion that we need a sarcasm punctuation mark at all.

I love sarcasm.  Sarcasm is a wonderful tool for both oration and literature. But it is a specific tool, and can in fact be quite dangerous to both the recipient and the wielder.  Sarcasm is a knife, multi-purposeful, just as at home in the kitchen as in the hand of a trained fighter.  But when wielded incorrectly, no matter how innocuous the environment, the user is still likely to get cut, lost a finger or maybe even worse.

The times to best use sarcasm are quite specific.  One should use sarcasm when:

  1. You disagree with a known perception of reality
  2. Your audience is aware of both the known perception and your disagreement
  3. You audience agrees with your own perception of reality, and not the instigating perception

With these circumstances fulfilled, one can wield sarcasm to the endless delight of his audience.  The more opinionated the individual is, combined with a deep understanding of many different world views, results in either a reputation of being witty, or of being a know-it-all jackass.  The difference between the two is dependent upon fulfilling the third circumstance listed above.

If one chooses to wield sarcasm amongst those who do not agree with his own perception of reality, it will most likely not be appreciated by his audience.  However, in recent times, and also in some cultures, people choose to use sarcasm without the third circumstance being fulfilled, and the advent of this punctuation mark debacle is proof that this continues to be the case amongst some of the Internet culture.

In many cultures, sarcasm is dry, and often expressed without special intonation, which can leave many wondering if the speaker is being sarcastic at all.  However, if individuals listening have pre-knowledge of the speaker’s opinions and world-views, then explicit intonation or other form of demarcation is less important.  It implies that the listeners are intimates of the speaker, and the sarcasm is for their own amusement; harmless in-jokes.

Demarcating sarcasm allows an individual to forgo the third circumstance and bring sarcasm into the realm of the harmful, or even worse, the realm of the, “out of context.” The beauty that arises from the subtly and required intimacy of sarcasm is lost, the stiletto replaced by the Bowie.  Will it be effective? Of course… if your goal is the destruction of your target and your own labeling as a jackass know-it-all.  Trust me, I have been there, and it’s not a fun place to be. 

Demarcation is degrading an art into the realm of the common; an art that requires years of hard work and a multitude of apologies to friends and loved ones, in order to add it to your arsenal.  He who needs a punctuation mark to denote sarcasm is he who should not be wielding it in the first place. This is ridiculous.


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Mzee MacDonald

Mzee Macdonald ana shamba

ii ai ii ai oo

Na katika shamba yake ana ng’ombe

ii ai ii ai oo

Na muu muu hapa, na muu muu hapo

Hapa muu, hapo muu, kila mali muu muu

Mzee Macdonald ana shamba

ii ai ii ai oo

Brief post today, tell me what it is and test your Kiswahili!


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The Importance of Exposure

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

-Robert A. Heinlein

A recent article by Hash on the White African blog prompted this post.  In it, the author mentions how Kenya is facing a web design problem as exhibited by “professional” websites created in Kenya not necessarily meeting the criteria for professional websites created in other parts of the world, no matter the other country’s developed status. Commentators have opened up numerous avenues of discussion as to why this is the case, and I have contributed a comment myself, citing a lack of education in modern design technique.

The post, however specific it is, actually brings up one of the biggest issues I have with the Kenyan education system, and Kenya in general.  One of the largest problems facing this country is its lack of exposure to just about everything outside of Kenya.  In some ways, this is good.  Isolation can allow a country to solve its own problems first before tackling those faced by our globalized world.  It can also help increase national pride and even strengthen the economy when proper isolationist economic principles are actively pursued.

But I am still asked on a regular basis if American’s know what lions are before they come to Kenya.  Do we have lions in America? How do Americans learn about lions?  In explaining about zoos and books and pictures and video tapes used in education I begin to wonder about the differences between here and home.  How do we learn about that which is not immediately present?

The third jab at the lack of exposure in Kenya comes from my having recently explained the liberal arts-style of education, that, though not all Americans undertake to its culmination at the undergraduate level, still heavily influences our public school systems which therefore affects a great majority of Americans.  Needless to say, Americans are exposed to many things growing up, even if they will never impact their lives directly.

Exposure is critical to development.  Amongst my co-teachers here at NYS I am constantly encountering the “expert-style” education mentality, where you are educated to become an expert in one field and ignore all other fields.  This exists even in America, and I amusingly reference a recent episode of Scrubs where the main character J.D., a very thoughtful, introspective, medical doctor does not know the location of the country Iraq.  But in America, we also have an inherit passive exposure system derived from the sheer multi cultural nature of the country; we have to work far less to be exposed to far more things than in Kenya.

Where does Kenya increase its level of exposure then? Through the education system would be the easiest place.  But here we have a problem.  The education system is all geared towards testing and certification.  As long as the testing authorities never adapt their syllabus to the constantly fluctuating world knowledge base, then teachers will feel less compelled, and even compelled against, exposing their students to the most current methods and theories, even when those methods and theories present completely benign but progressive enhancements to old methodologies (i.e. are non-controversial).  Why do Kenyan web designers not implement the latest practices in web design? Because the KASNEB regulatory authority has not updated its curriculum to reflect this as a need.

I remember a phrase a friend told me a few years ago: “The media does not impact how you think, it just changes what you think about.”  Abstracting this phrase a bit, a human brain is highly capable of connecting facts, forming patterns between facts, drawing conclusions from those facts and acting upon those conclusions, with a little training.  What makes somebody truly effective is increasing the number of facts the brain has available to process, even if those facts don’t seem immediately relevant to the matter at hand.

Part of critical thinking and analysis is understanding patterns between facts, but the best way to understand patterns is to bring in seemingly extraneous information and being amazed when the patterns you observe in the realm of computer science also apply in history, or biology, or religion.  Exposure is the key to this, and in Kenya, in order to increase exposure, we need to force the education regulators to start seeing this as a need.  Only then will we have good Kenyan web designers. At least, that’s what I think.


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Kiswahili, A Language of Action

I love language.  I love language because I love thinking, and language is our vain attempt to express our thoughts to others, the primary means of collaboration and arguably one of our species’ greatest strengths.  Joining the Peace Corps I was very excited at the prospect of getting to live in another language, immerse myself in how different people attempt to express their thoughts: hunger, anger, ambition, love; for though we may all share similar thoughts across this small world of ours, our needs essentially being the same, how we prioritize our needs and subsequently our thoughts is still one of the primary means we use to differentiate cultures from one another.  After a year and a half of living within the land of the Swahili, I have begun to notice some interesting aspects about the Kiswahili language.

Kiswahili has a ridiculous number of words that stem from verbs.  It seems that almost every word that comes out of ones mouth is derived from a verb.  Whole sentences can be constructed upon the prefixing, suffixing and infixing of verbs.  Subjects, objects, tenses, continuations, subjunctive states, all of these things and more can be expressed with one verb, properly fixed.  With Kiswahili, it’s as if the entire language is derived from action in all forms and how that action impacts the surrounding.

With English there seems to be moreetymology of words, and therefore a deeper understanding of their origins.  However, it’s harder to see such blatant connections between thought process as in Kiswahili. As is my understanding of Kiswahili, though it is a mixture of several languages, many of those languages are much more pure than English is comparatively, which gives me confidence that such derivations are more intentional to the original Kiswahili thought process, and less a coincidence.  In other words, because a verb seems to derive from a verb, it is in fact originally derived from that verb.  In English, though you can trace a history, it’s harder to trace original intent.

Let’s dive into the fun.  In their infinitive form a Kiswahili verb consists of an infinitive prefix, ku, followed by the verb radical or root.  For example, kupoa means, “to cool down,” or, “to become cold,” where ku is the infinitive prefix, and poa the root word for cooling down.  Kuzunugu is the infinitive meaning “to wander,” with zungu being the root, wander.

From these roots, the language flourishes.  For example, those that perform the actions, the nouns, are derived from the verb roots.  In its most literal sense, the word mzungu, which I so loathe, means, “the guy wandering around.”  Kulima is the verb “to cultivate or farm” and an mkulima is a farmer. So on and so forth.  The term ushahidi, which translates as “testimonial,” derives from the verb kushahidi, “to testify.”

As with all languages these literal meanings get lost, their derivations become culturally obfuscated.  A perfect example is mzungu.  Nowadays, when somebody says mzungu, they most like mean a foreigner (the guys who originally came here wandering around…), but not just any foreigner, most likely a Caucasian.  Black foreigners are oftentimes considered to be Africans and East Asians are called, mchini which means a person from China.  Some mzungu get even more frustrated with the generalization and sarcastically think the word means money, or walking money tree, because that is how some mzungu are treated here in Kenya.

Poa is another word that has taken on a different meaning.  It just means, “cool.”  Not cool as in temperature, but cool in a way an American might say, “The movie was cool.”  I don’t know when this word assumed its current form, but it is one of the few slang words that seems to translate almost literally between American slang and Kenyan slang.

I want to go so far and hazard a guess that the most common, culturally accepted pleasantry, the translation for “thank you,” also derives from a verb.  Based on the derivation rules of the Kiswahili language, I want to suggest that the verb kuasanta may be a synonym for the verb kushukuru, which means “to thank.”  However, over time, kuasanta has assumed the spoken form of asante, which would suggest that it is a polite, weak, imperative, but is simply used as, “thanks.”  However, none of the online dictionaries seem to contain the verb in its root.  Many of these dictionaries contain only modern usage of words, of which asante is the only acceptable form, so I might have to dig up an old Zanzibar dialect dictionary, from which modern Kiswahili originates.

Language is fun.  Just as I love learning about English derivations and word histories, I also love putting together word histories for Kiswahili.  The one caveat is that old form Kiswahili literacy is losing ground because not as many people were educated in Kiswahili as a literate art back when people were still using old form.  In its modern incarnation Kiswahili has assumed a much more functional base upon which modern day literary artists are building a new language, a blend of Kiswahili and English called sheng.  Because more people are educated within this new linguistic ecosystem, the old form will die away.  Neither good nor bad, it’s just the natural progression of language, though it’s sad to see any language die. I jut fear the day that in losing a language, we may lose the only way we know to express our innermost thoughts.

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Linux Gaming Roundup

Let’s see, you have successfully gotten your computer running the your latest Linux distribution of choice, but you are still missing the finger-twitching action of a good video game. You could dual boot your machine, but that just seems wrong to some, and a nuisance to others; you could run a virtualized instance of Windows, but that might not give you the power you need to run the latest in 3D tech, or you could realize that if you want to play games on Linux, probably so have others, and there’s bound to be some type of “pure” solution.

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TEDs Talk But Phantoms Work

Boeing Phantom Works Hydrogen Powered Unmanned Aircraft

It’s TED season again. For those who don’t know, what TED is, it’s a series of conferences that has been growing in public popularity in recent years, despite its age, where the supposed best and brightest collect to share ideas on the latest and greatest… stuff. It has also been criticized for hefty entrance and sitting fees, and the “elite” attitude some former TED Fellows carry about their work. For right or wrong; true to its nature or not, the TED talks are getting increasing attention from people in the development field due to some of the topics of discussion and the frequency with which they can be applied to development work.

In principle, I am not against conferences and discussions. They are places where people with similar thoughts can come together and focus their attention on their trade in a collective fashion. I myself was lucky enough to attend and present at a conference just after graduating from university but before coming to Kenya with the Peace Corps, and seeing the experts of the field in person and hearing them talk can be an inspiring thing. When your work is difficult and tiring, inspiration is critical.

Yet since joining the development field (though Peace Corps is arguably traditional “development work”), it seems all that’s on peoples’ minds is these conferences. This sharing of ideas. Ideas are the currency of international development, and conferences are like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The problem however, is that these currencies are devalued, baseless, in my experience. For every one million ideas that I hear someone is “working on,” I hear of one that is actually been implemented and actually working as expected (de-hyperbolize as you see fit). As we all know, when currencies have no foundation for valuation, be it precious scarce raw material or trust in the issuing authority, then they are just token and nothing more. Without a working implementation, development ideas are simply token.

Just yesterday, BBC News released an article about Boeing’s Phantom Works unveiling their latest creation: a hydrogen-powered airplane capable of sustaining flight for about 96 hours. Quite an accomplishment for something with 2.3 litre engine and a 150 foot wingspan. Oh, and there’s no pilot. That’s the kicker. Were people talking about it before the release? No. Were there YouTube videos posted about it? No. Do hoards of bloggers publicly worship the ground the Phantom engineers walk on? No. Will it revolutionize the way we live our lives? Indirectly, I would venture and say yes. Engineering feats, even proofs of concept, tend to do that.

Unlike Phantom Works, development conferences don’t produce anything. Sometimes, the speakers at those conferences have not accomplished a single thing themselves: no projects completely implemented, no metrics regarding a project’s true success, no replicable model. Yet I have witnessed people gobble up others’ words as if they were the next Messiah. I have seen people rise up through the ranks of the development-workhierarchyand gain credibility. Sometimes it all makes me wonder: who’s more the fool, the Fool or those that follow him?

It’s just another contrast between the business world and the development world that frustrates me to no end. Sometimes I wish people would just take grant or seed money, implement their project, record its successes and failures in a private but replicable and then present upon those alone, not on hopes and dreams. Otherwise, the ideas coming out of these conferences discourage implementors on the ground who don’t want to be re-inventing wheels when they could be supporting a pre-existing project. The problem is that the projects aren’t really pre-existing, they are only existing in a vaporous state, not quite yet solid, not even liquid, a mere cognitive pattern upon anindividual’sbrain, neural pathways that don’t yet control the hands that build.

There are several prohibitive mentalities at play on the ground in development work. I have not noticed the “race mentality” amongst development workers, where one feels the need to be the first to implement. It might be because personal profit is not at stake, just other human lives aside from your own. Competition and efficiency is sacrificed for the spirit ofcamaraderie and cultural sensitivity. The development mentality is a double-edged sword: on one side you have the principle of working slow and together because you are dealing with peoples’ lives and livelihoods and you want to cause as little collateral damage as necessary; the other edge to the sword is that by moving slowly we possibly do not help those who need the help in the instant. I would analogize it to a surgeon performing open-heart surgery, needing to move slowly to not kill his patient while also needing to hurry so as to not kill his patient.

I guess the question is, do surgeons need to have crowds and fans, or should they just do the work. Would one rather their surgeon be distraction free, not needing to constantly be reaffirmed of their “good work” by the mases, so that they might instead focus on the results of their efforts? Sure, the Phantoms and surgeons of the world work behind closed doors, but does that belittle their success? While at the same time, do the hoards qualify the development worker’s efforts or merely serve to motivate glamorized non-productivity?

P.S. This is why I like computer programming. It’s all fun and games talking yourself up until someone says, “Show me the code.”

N.B. I ran this post through I Write Like and here are its results:

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

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6 Months Left, Looking Back, Looking Ahead

No matter how the dice roll, in about 6 months’ time I should be back in Massachusetts, my home, after my 2 year stint with the Peace Corps.  There are still some questions as to when the exact day will be, and I may not know for sure until September, but I looked at the calendar (one of my three that occupy my “Calendar Corner”) and today being the 12th, I realized that no matter whatshenanigansmay be pulled, there is no doubt that by this time, 6 months passed, I should be home. Of course, this thinking prompted me to be introspective about my service here.

Some may say, “6 months is a long time, how are you already being introspective about what you’ve finished? You still have plenty of time to go!”  My response to that is what anyone in development can tell you: 6 months in a 2 year contract is practically no time in development work. The length of my contract has always been something that I do appreciate about Peace Corps, however grueling other organizations perceive it.  Most volunteer development workers end up on the Kenyan Coast for 4 or 5 month stints because many of them are university-age and their schedules reflect those of their respective universities.  Because many organizations do not require you to have an exact plan of action upon entering Kenya, you spend the first 3 months planning a project, only to realize it will take 2 years to implement, then leave Kenya without having accomplished much of anything that will last beyond your time here.  Heck, even those of us who are here for those 2 years don’t often leave anything that will last past our time here, of which I am a perfect example.

Many people have asked me, “What do you do as a Peace Corps volunteer?” and I have never been able to answer clearly before because everything was always shifting around, no plans ever concrete.  However, as is said, hindsight is in fact 20-20, and with only six months to go and no intention of really changing the course of my work, I feel that now is as good a time as any to recap what I have attempted as a Peace Corps volunteer.  These are all  personal examples, so sorry if it comes off as seeming self-serving, but I truly want to paint as clear a picture of what I have attempted so that prospective volunteers and others back home may have a better understanding of the type of work I have faced as a volunteer.

What Have I Attempted

A lot of people have talked about what they have done, or what they have accomplished.  I take issue with using either of those words in my efforts.  When one says he has “done” something he has to be very careful and specific about his actions because generalizations can often creep into his “done” actions and before he knows it, he’s aggrandizing well beyond truth.  Saying one has accomplished something also requires that level of specificity, because too often are there automatic assumptions made about accomplishment such as the effects of your accomplished actions lasting indefinitely.  In the development world, qualification andspecificityshould be default, but sadly this is not always the case, and oftentimes people are lauded for their “accomplishments” and what they have “done” when in fact nothing has improved or even simply changed.

Instead, I will talk about what I have attempted for the past 18 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

As a volunteer serving in an education institute, I have attempted to teach myassignedstudents my respective subject: computers.  I have attempted to teach them in a way different from others I have observed because I feel that learning is not simply memorizing facts. In attempting this, I still wonder if I have actually hindered my students more in their education, for even though I feel computer education requires a more abstract approach than is custom here, the ultimate testing and certification will not be asking questions in the style that I would ask.  With my students’ minds having already been pre-conditioned to a specific learning style, I wonder if my new approach has actually left them factually crippled for their upcoming national examinations despite their improving performance in the classroom and on my own internally administered examinations.

Within my role as an instructor at National Youth Service (NYS), I also attempted to improve the computer teaching facilities within the guidelines that all instructors must follow when requisitioning for supplies.  I did not try to step out of my bounds and use the “mzungu effect,” to get what I want but instead tried to work within the NYS system.  NYS already has plans for ICT education built into their long-term goals, and me being the local mzungu is not going to change those plans.  Learning to work within the system and see its limitations helps early on with the reality check and determining the most effect course of action.

Aside from teaching in the classroom, I have attempted to teach anyone and everyone willing to listen about the benefits of using free and open-source software.  These opportunities often presentthemselveswhen teachers or friends or organizations bring me broken computers, broken because Windows has failed to survive an otherwise pathetic Flash Disk virus attack, and being development oriented types, the individuals tend to be more willing to try new things.  A perfect ground for my open source evangelism.  I must also admit a selfish perspective on this: bringing more people into the Ubuntu community, I get much better first-hand experience in how to best troubleshoot and assist problems with Ubuntu, both over the phone and in person.  These are skills I may put to use later in my life.

I have also attempted to provide consultation on a range of technical problems facing individuals in this country: from web design to phone support to technology purchasing decision support, I have attempted to help others whenever they faced a technology support need. This  has included consultation for the Rural Internet Kiosk project, as well as web site consultation for organizations such as Women and Children Alternative Lives (WACAL), the Liki River Water Users Association and others.  Through the World Computer Exchange, I was also able to work with an international team to help secondary schools in the Tetu constituency assess their computer networking infrastructure needs and begin building local networks there.

More Peace Corps-centric, I have attempted to revive the volunteer-only newsletter.  Starting the country program afresh after the Kenyan post-election violence in January 2008, the Peace Corps volunteer community was scattered and small.  We have grown over time very quickly though, so I thought it might be nice to attempt a unifying, volunteer-run and volunteer-contributednewsletter, a shared experience as it were.

Will It Last?

I have attempted many things.  Some of my attempts have been simple, one-off actions where the effect is immediate.  I think that is part of the reason why I like technical support, as much as I complain in the moment: fixing a computer has an immediate impact, and even its lasting effects can be safely predicted.  Little islands of immediacy, concrete action, are anchor points for an otherwise topsy-turvy volunteer life.  The same can be said for web site development, where I have one site to finish and fully intend to do so.

Outside of those technical projects, the lasting impact is certainly arguable.  Some will say that teaching always has a lasting impact, but that is also arguable.  Teaching does not always have a lasting impact, and some of my own past teachers certainly burn brighter in my memory than others.  Far too many organizations seem to operate on the mantra that sticking a white person in front of a bunch of Kenyans will of course have a lasting impact.  Time has told me this is not the case, and that a teacher with a lasting impact is one whose students remember the lessons taught to them, no matter the color of the skin or the nationality.  Have I been that teacher? I hope so, but I don’t count on it.  Sometimes, people will not realize the lessons taught to them until years after the teacher has spoken the words as well.  I don’t hold much hope for my teaching impact.

I do see an impact and gears moving when I talk to my fellow NYS teachers and project colleagues about why I support free and open source software (FOSS).  Discussions such as the impact of software piracy, where viruses come from, things that have an immediate impact on their lives, that is where I see myself getting through.  Even if I have not produced change, I have provided exposure to new ideas, which is the first step to educated, impacting change.  I have even made a few converts to FOSS in the NYS office because the secretaries quickly realized how much damage viruses caused and time they wasted and once they saw that transitioning to Ubuntu would be easy, they were quickly on board and have not looked back since.

I have not taught anyone at NYS how to maintain Ubuntu however.  The fault here is mine and though I have my excuses, I feel there is no need to expostulate on them, as they are all easily refuted as worthy by others.  Thus, unless I am able to sufficiently instruct a more permanent member of the NYS community about Ubuntumaintenance, my attempt will be all for naught, as NYS will lose Ubuntu with the next round of new computers, or whenever one computer breaks and needs to be reformatted.  I have six months, so I guess I had better get cracking.

The Worth

Some may wonder who has benefited the most in all of this and the answer is clearly me.  I have been given two years to study both myself and a new culture, as well as how well I can work within that culture.  Failure is regularoccurrence, and though I may learn from my failure more easily, as I am in a situation where I have nothing to lose, the same cannot be said for those I am trying to help for whom failure can have quite a big impact.

People ask in general if Peace Corps can prove its worth, to which I whole heartedly say it is worthwhile.  Peace Corps is a great opportunity for exposure: for exposing the international community to everyday Americans as well as for exposing everyday Americans to the international community.  At least in Kenya, not only are there working relationships between US and Kenyan organizations, but there are also working relationships with organizations from dozens of countries around the world.  Kenya is breeding ground for international cultural exposure and cooperation, and as I said before, I truly feel exposure is the first step to educated impacting change.  If you have never seen something or even heard of it, how can you know it exists?  Abroad you get to see so much that otherwise you would not have, as well as hear about ideas that would have otherwise not impacted your own thought process.

The fact that Peace Corps provides this opportunity is something that many people should consider if they are looking for something to do in life.  You will be exposed to so much more than if you just stayed at home, even if you do spend your days surfing the web, and  this exposure could help you shape your own thoughts better so that you might improve your own life.  Again, my joining Peace Corps has had a much greater impact on me as an individual than I have had on anyone else here, that much is for sure.  Now if only we could come up with some metric by which to show the value of this so that we could whip up some nice charts and graphs and Congress would give us more funding!

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Constitutional Law For Programmers

I am living in what I consider to be a very exciting time in modern history.  Kenya, is undergoing a constitutional referendum!  Hooray.  African politics aside, for this post is not about post-colonial government flaws, constitutional weakness, or things like that, I am excited because to me a constitutional shift, however minor, is like building a new operating system for a computer.  Yes there are heaps of other analogies out there I could make, but I really don’t want to make them; whoever said an analogy had to be relevant anyways?

The constitution of a nation is the first level of a complete framework of government presented to law makers.  It makes fundamental decisions based on a peoples’ culture, the inherent capability of physical resources, about how the government and its citizens can and should interact.  It provides a moderated interface through which everyday humans are allowed to access and modify the raw human resource that makes up their system, their nation. It answer the question, “To what extent are we allowed to manipulate these resources before some moderating force steps in and says, ‘Woah, you are out of line and need to stop or I will make you stop.'”  It provides a set of fundamental legal limitations which is exciting because limitation is what breeds creativity, as long as creativity is in fact simply a new level of interface: providing a simple, more friendly means for citizens to interact with the law withoutactuallygoing through therigmarole required to actually allow the action to pass through the moderating force that is theconstitution.

Some constitutions are designed to be flexible, others are very rigid and situation specific.  Flexible, adaptable constitutions present more philosophical limitations on law makers, allowing the law makers to modify the system to suit a time period’s needs.  Other constitutions spell out explicit “Dos” and “Don’ts” of government, limiting theflexibilityof law makers, but arguably creating a need for even more creative law making.

Sometimes constitutions simply need to be rewritten.  After hundreds of years of operation, with younger, fresher constitutions showing new potential, olderconstitutiongo in for refactoring.  Best practices have been adopted, shown to work for those governing a particular population size.  More assumptions can be made about what citizens will and will not tolerate from their government, and sometimes crust and legacy laws are simply thrown away, never to be discussed again, and if in your personal situation it still apples, nuts to you.

Just as these constitutions arere-factored andacademics argue over the theoretical limitations of particular systems, eventually decisions must be made; hybrid systems are created.  Caveats are inserted into the margins beseeching law makers to ABSOLUTELY NOT USE THIS LAWunless you have to…. and the academics go back to arguing about their theory, about how constitutions should be pure representations of systems while the law makers mutter that the “ideas people” have never had to actually “make” or “implement” anything in their life.  Pure systems are the real trash; hybrids, compromises, are true order of the day.

New changes may not take effect immediately; deprecation periods are built into newconstitutions.  Features of the old constitution will be relevant for given periods of time based upon the perceived need to support the feature until its use can be supplanted by newer methodology.  Someconstitutionseven allow for majoraddendato their fundamental operation, but these addenda tend to go through a stricter vetting process, ensuring their security, stability and need before being tacked on.  Once in a while, an addendum will fail however, and there is a need for a rollback to a previous version of the constitution, now without the failed addendum.

Constitutions are fun, and many governments love to see how long they can push their current constitution before needing a rewrite.  Installing a new constitution is never an easy task, as it effects all laws built upon the oldconstitution: some may become completely  incompatible, some may see their functionality integrated into the newconstitutionand thus become obsolete themselves while their purpose lives on, and some may make the transitionseamlessly, not really relying upon the framework directly provided by theconstitution.  As a rule of thumb, the closer the law comes to infringing upon constitutional limits, the greater the chance it will need to bere-factoredwhen a new constitution comes into effect.

It is most certainly an exciting time for Kenya, and for me.  I love that I can be here for this process and though I know no system-wide transition will ever go 100% smoothly, I wish Kenya the best, no matter what the decision may be.

Some interesting “alternative” operating systems you may be interested include:

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Free Tech Advice: Maintain A Backup

For those who don’t need to be convinced about backing up data, here are some tips based on operating system:

I am frequently called by fellow Peace Corps volunteers about potentially lost data and how to recover it; viruses that have ravaged computers; dropped machines that, “for some strange reason,” just don’t seem to work anymore.  To all of these problems I have one very simple solution: backup your data.  Also, to anyone purchasing a new computer, anywhere in the world, I offer one piece of advice: factor in the cost of a backup hard drive and then backup your data!  Of course, what the heck does that even mean?

A data backup is, just as it sounds, a second copy of all of your personal data: music, documents, photos, everything you hold dear and cannot afford to lose.  But as a techie, I take a very particular attitude towards data backup that may or may not be shared by my peers.  It’s also a very conservative approach.  I suggest that everyone purchase an external hard drive that at least equals the size of the hard drive in your personal computer, be it a laptop or desktop.  Plug this hard drive in at least once a week and synchronize your personal information between the external and the computer.  Then take this backup and put it somewhere safe, and when I mean safe, I mean somewhere a) physically separate from your computer, and b) protected against everything from curious children to fires.  For example, I have a data backup of my computer’s hard drive in America locked away in a fireproof lock-box.

The reasons I suggest this are many.  For the specifics: you should keep it physically separate because there is a good chance that any tragedy that may physically befall a computer would also most likely befall other items near to the computer i.e. a fire would most likely burn in at least a whole room of a building, not just the computer desk.  You should keep it physically protected for similarly basic reasons: a hard drive is not impervious to physical damage such as drops, fires and the like and should thus be prevented from sustaining such trauma.

Some might argue that for the average user this advice is needless.  In fact, this advice does stem from larger-system practices of backing up critical data, but nowadays applies directly to average users as well.  More important information is stored on an average user’s computer than ever before.  From tax returns to receipts and other financial information; from purchased music that only exists digitally, as well any paid-for, downloaded applications; from personal pictures that also only exist digitally, digital data is more and moreseamlesslyintegrated into our daily lives and should be protected as such.

How does one go about performing a backup and synchronization?  It depends on the system you use, and for each example, I will just talk about a synchronization, which is where your backup disk contains only the most recent copy of your files.  This is not for restoring a file from a few days ago that you may have deleted, but is rather intended to lessen the impact of a potential computer catastrophe.  If the suggestion I offer below also offers more fine-grain backup, then great!

  • All Systems – No matter what operating system your computer uses, one is always able to do a simple copy/paste backup.  Simply plug in your external hard drive, delete the last version of your files from the external, then select the new files to backup from your computer, copy them and paste them onto the external.  It may take a while, especially if you are backing up dozens (or hundreds!) of gigabytes of data.  This method also suffers from a drawback: if something goes wrong during the copy, you have already deleted your backup and that may cause problems.  Use this method only as a last resort.
  • Mac OS X – If your computer is running Mac OS X, you have what is arguably the most integrated backup solution.  It’s called Time Machine, and it makes incremental backups of your hard drive as long as it’s turned on.  To fulfill my backup requirements though, you need to tweak the default settings, which are under Apple Menu -> System Preferences -> Time Machine.  There, you should select your external hard drive (which must before formatted as HFS+, or Mac Formatted, I believe) as the primary storage device.  When your device is not plugged in, there is a chance that Time Machine will warn you it is not operating.  This is fine, as long as you remember to plug in your hard drive at least once a week.  But don’t leave your backup hard drive always plugged in, as that defeats the first rule of backing up: keep your backup disk physically separate from the computer.
  • Linux – If you are running a general Linux-based OS on your computer, I have had a very good experience using Unison for my synchronization.  I know, I know, some of the hardcore guys will yell at me for not using RSync and not writing a cron script and not doing this or that command-line voodoo, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t trust myself enough with my own data.  I know Grsync exists for the more visually-inclined, but I have just had a bad experience using that.  Unison has just worked in my experience, though I do not think it is actively being developed at the moment.  It should be available in major distribution repos.
  • Windows – Man, I wish I could help more here.  Windows has had integrated backup solutions built into all versions since Windows XP (or maybe even earlier), but I have never personally used any of these.  For Windows 7, some information can be found at this Microsoft Resource Link, and for Windows XP, here.  The one caveat that I have is that on Windows, there is currently a much higher virus-infestation rate than on other operating systems.  When backing up, you may in fact be backing up a virus that is hiding in your personal data folders.  Make sure to run virus scans with up to date anti-virus software before performing a backup.  N.B. The reason I don’t offer advice for computers running Windows Vista is because upgrading to Windows 7supersedesyour need to backup your information.  I am serious, get off of Vista and on to 7.

Hope that helps!

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A Fundamental Difference

Working in Kenya, I often get struck by how often acronyms get tossed around, but one in particular gets tossed around a lot: NGO.  NGO stands for Non-Government Organization, and when it comes to development work, NGO are the hot thing.  I thought I might talk a little about the impact of these NGO here in Kenya as per my experience.

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