U.S. Legal Bug Tracker

I am sitting here, waiting for a colleague to return so that we can continue setting up his file and print server for his school, so I thought I might take the time to blog a bit. On the long bus from Dar to Arusha, TZ, one of my eCorps teammates and I had a discussion regarding U.S. politics, and though we disagreed on a few things, one thing we could agree on was this: the U.S. government needs to take some time to review pre-existing laws and either amend or repeal those that are ineffective or are being exploited in unintentional ways. The government needs not only to work on adding “features” (i.e. new laws), but also in fixing “bugs” (i.e. flawed laws). Can you tell we are both programmers?

Bug tracking is a major component of any large software project and can easily be applied to legal matters. As our legal system grows, and more people interact with it on a regular basis, unintended consequences of laws come to light. People with more time on their hands to analyze certain aspects of legal code than the lawmakers themselves often discover what the public deems “loopholes” in law. History has shown that non-governmental entities discover the loopholes, but in most cases, the public is not empowered enough to help close them, even if they are being exploited, and lawmakers are often too busy to fix problems.

Instead, lawmakers must focus their efforts on passing more and more legislation to appease their constituents. The result is a government that grows and expands on an increasingly shaky foundation. Never a good idea.

I propose a web site that allows the public to deem certain laws as “buggy,” effectively creating a bug tracker for government. Legal bug tracking starts when people complain about an issue that seems unfair to them. From there, more legally-oriented individuals might do some research and provide the exact legal code and courtroom precedents that allow people to exploit the legal system. After the bug is officially identified, individuals can provide references to “officially recorded” complaints already made, such as those in newspaper articles. Finally, people can submit such bug tickets to their congressmen with the hopes that they might begin the process of amending or repealing.

Of course, this is not a perfect system. People will obviously disagree on which aspects of law are actually “bugs,” and which may be “bugs that are features,” or exploits that a great number of people actually prefer. However, that level of difference is inherent in any large system, be it politics or software. Disagreement is to be expected and thus it is important to focus instead on using a proven technology in the quest of generating necessary discourse for helping our government help us. Building a house on a rotted foundation is never a good idea, and it’s equally bad to build a government on a foundation of rotted and dated laws. For a bit, let’s focus on fixing our foundations before beginning our next addition.

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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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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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