Monthly Archives: August 2010

Look, Pictures!

Sorry, I don’t have time for a full update. I have been travelling all this month, first in Makindu, then all around with my family, and tomorrow I am off to Tanzania. After all that, I will return to my normal blogging schedule, including round-ups of everything I have been doing.

In the meantime, check out my Flickr feed to the right for some pictures from my latest travels. My camera sadly has a dust spot, so all those pictures have been edited to remove the dust spot, and enhance the general color and contrast more to my liking. Hope you enjoy!

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Kenya Cybers Should Take New Direction

Most Kenyans accessing the non-mobile Internet do so through local cyber cafes scattered throughout the country, some even in the smallest and most remote of villages.  This unprecedented level of specific-location access allows someone approaching the internet as an income generating activity to tap an enormous demographic.  Yet as far as I can tell, most cybers follow the same model, mostly do to lack of hardware and lack of skills: three or four ten-year-old computers connected through either an archaic Telkom line, or for thoseentrepreneursahead of the curve, a cellular modem.

People love to tout the fiber-optic cables recently laid (or sunk?) as the beginnings of a data revolution.  People tout higher speeds, Kenya as a potential source of untapped digital service providers and support, or any number of other ideas.  Yet all of these things require much better training than most curricula provide and will take at least a decade to fully realize as an economic impact.  Am I making broad statements? Sure. But nobody is paying me, so I don’t have to be correct, I just get to talk and it’s up to you listen.

I propose an interim solution that leverages existing cyber infrastructure.  Don’t interpret it as a niche market, but instead as a  model that all cybers should work to implement.  I propose that cybers become passive content-consumption education centers.  I hope the hyphenation clearly delineates where I am going.

As the capability and power of even modest used computers available in local markets increases through laws of trickle-down theory, we should begin to utilize them to act as content caches, fed from both online content and through (legally grey) locally available digital files.  That’s right, I want streaming video and music servers in cybers around Kenya.

Take all of those old computers and make them web browser dumb boxes.  Provide each user with a locally-served web site that aggregates the most popular YouTube videos from around the world, as well as locally-popular content; create streaming music web services through the use of such lightweight, user-friendly services as MPD, the Music Player Daemon, and wrap it up into a nice, easily distributed disc that can one-click install both server and client.

People talk about education and change in the known ecosystem, but my proposal is based on the idea that ease-of-use is the best tool for eliminating inhibition.  The Kenyan government, as far as I know, did not drive around to villages and teach people how to use mobile phones; instead, mobile phones taught themselves, or friends taught friends, without either friend needing an engineering degree.  Phones are easy. So too the content can be.

Making content easily available and locally stored has seemingly small per-use benefit, but represents huge cost-savings over the long term.  Connections will seem “faster” (a huge selling point here) when each member is streaming their YouTube video locally and not over the shared 256 Kbps dedicated line.  Also, allowing people to become absorbed in their workflow by providing personally crafted sound tracks (with provided headphones!) while they work will entice users to stay for more minutes, and in this business, minutes is a direct translation into money.  Not to mention the savings owners will have when not using their credit to download the same content over and over again.

In the same interface, provide links to the major sources of content on the web, thus allowing a gradual adoption of the less user-friendly sites.  A savvy cyber owner will monitor the content viewed online and maintain a download queue to move it to a locally stored cache.

All the technology has been developed, and is here in Kenya, and I have seen Kenyan techs using it on their own.  Why not put it together in a nice package for all to benefit?

Hey Mkahawa, are you listening!?

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Where Are My Americans?

Politics have always been interesting to me, but I have always considered myself a staunch independent, voting, but not necessarily engaging or even inclining interesting the day-to-day of the political rigor.  Serving in Kenya has really opened my eyes up to both the good and bad of politics.  Whereas living in the US there is always a nice comfortable barrier between the law and the citizen, where new laws tend to have only a minor impact for the majority of citizens, affecting (or disaffecting) those citizens laying at the extremes the most, in Kenya law causes a much greater daily impact, for many reasons.

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America As An Inchworm

an inchworm on leaves

America needs a cultural and economic shift.  We all know that America has been having some economic troubles recently, but a quick article up on Salon.com recently painted a nice picture of what they call an economic collapse of our empire.  Sharing this link with a friend of mine prompted a conversation regarding what America should do to prevent this collapse.

My response is a return to trade skills.  All ecosystems work in pendulum swings between states of inequality to generate a (dynamic) balance, and the American economy is no different, especially now that it is arguably in its most unified state since founding.  We are on the side of the swing that is economic decline due to overgrowth in one sector, services, and we need to promote a return to other sectors in order to keep the pendulum moving back towardseconomicrecovery.

The problem with these statements is that oftentimes they invoke negative imagery of sweatshop labor, families unable to pay their bills, etc.  Yet this not need be the case.  Instead, consider America’s economic-distribution curve like an inchworm making it’s way along, where the head moves forward while the tail catches up.  The head is the economic elite, the tail is the rest.  The inchworm moves forward, it’s just that the elite get to achieve the results first.  We all talk about the decline of the middle class, but in reality its not a decline at all, many of them have just caught up with the head, they have succeeded.  The problem is that no matter the case, the head will always be in front of the tail, which is why we will always have a classed economy.

The problem with the inchworm is that the model only works when the inchworm has somewhere to go.  America has no direction right now.  Currently, society as a whole is focused on fighting wars, changing health care, promoting or banning gay marriage, banning immigrants, prepping for eco-energy and promoting and fighting climate change, all at the same time (at least, that’s the news headlines summation of America).  It’s an inchworm reared up on it’s hind legs, scouting out the terrain frantically, with no direction.  America needs to shift it’s focus to reassessing it’s own economic initiatives.

I am not talking about at the government level, but instead at the cultural level.  The friend that prompted this discussion remarked, about Utah’s potentially making the 12th grade voluntary, that it would be a good thing if they also put a focus on technical education.  Of course, this will probably not be the case, as in times like these budget cuts don’t often come with compromises of that sort, but it’s a point with which I agree.

America’s cultural shift needs to be away from this notion that everybody needs to go to college.  College is becoming less about education, and more about a social right-of-passage for many.  However, it has left one positive side-affect: American’s have demonstrated an increasing willingness to put off their lives for another two to four years before entering the work force.  This is our leverage for initiating change.

Take those two to four years and focus them on producing more specific workers.  Beef up high school so that it provides an extremely good environment for producing critical thinkers who also have general knowledge from which to derive their understanding of the patterns of the world.  Then provide these students with more than the three opportunities we have now: college, military or a crappy job.  Bring back technical education, place it post-secondary school and make it culturally praise-worthy, just like that four year degree!

With this accomplished, we need not return to the manufacturing and trades of old (though there will always be a need for good, national infrastructure support individuals).  There are plenty of new markets available that America can exploit, from green energy to battery technology (of which we used to be a leader, but no more), to computer programming.  In fact, regarding programming, the CEO of Zoho talks of snagging people right out of high school and training them to be programmers.  It’s a return to the apprenticeship model that has always been a lifeline to economies; one of the first structured means of passing along technical information from one generation to the next.

It’s a model I see at work here in Kenya.  The students that complete the NYS program and become tradespeople are considered the best.  I run into individuals randomly around Kenya who have completed NYS themselves and are proud of the lives they have created and attribute their success to the NYS program.

Many people feel that an education means a four year degree.  Yet I constantly meet people who tell me that they went to college, but don’t remember half of what they learned.  Why are we promoting such a wasteful system?  We need to readjust our cultural values away from the perception that a college-degree is necessary, and towards the perception that technical trade skills and prepping individuals to be immediately productive in the economy are to be admired and respected.  With this we can ensure the tail catches up with the head and the inchworm can move along his merry way.

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Walking Home From School

One thing that I notice about many Kenyan villages that to this day still astounds me is the amount of freedom a child has when returning home from school.  Kenya introduced free primary education back in 2003 and since then classroom sizes have significantly grown.  Students in their respective school uniforms are a common sight in almost all villages and towns and cities, adding even more color to the daily scene of Kenyan life.

These children, ranging from 5 years and up, go to school every morning, some as early as 4:30am! and come home every evening around 4:00 or 5:00pm.  Often traveling in packs, you see these children everywhere: walking along the roads, joking on the the village paths, even taking the public transport, some crammed 3 or 4 to a seat, stacked largest to smallest.

What is missing from the scene, when seen through my suburban-american lenses, are the parents, the crossing guards, the teachers, the bus drivers: the adult overseers of child home-school-home transportation.  There are no adult individuals explicitly tasked with ensuring the welfare of the children as they make their way through the towns and villages to their homes.

Is it because in Kenya there is no need?  The phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is everyday apparent here.  Mamas scold children when necessary, regardless of whose kid he or she may be.  Whereas in the US many people are scared to step on another’s metaphorical parenting toes, potentially upsetting that other’s “parenting style,” here, there seems to be more outward consensus of what a parent should be doing to raise their child; you aren’t stepping on anyone’s toes, you are simply doing what should be done.

Possibly this sense of communal welfare and even communal policing is another reason why five year olds can walk around without their helicopter-mom constantly hovering nearby.  If a child gets on a matatu, the conductor will not try to cheat him, that would be preposterous.  These are the children, they are the future, and if you cheat them, the mamas will get you anyway, so just don’t do it.  The specifically-tasked individuals, iconic in the US, are not needed here when every mama is a crossing guard, every matatu driver a bus driver.

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