Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I have moved

I changed the url and title for my blog. Don't get excited, though: I still don't plan on posting much, if at all. I mostly just wanted to grab the url for the future. I don't plan to do any fancy imigration of RSS feeds, either. I think there are only like two of you reading this through RSS, so it ain't worth it.

New blog:


Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Public Urination

A few months ago, I was monitoring one of my projects in Accra, walking from shop to shop to sit in on interviews. The sun was hot, so I drank lots of water, then had to urinate. It's totally cool in Accra to pee facing a busy street out the leg of your shorts (don't know why, but that's the preferred technique, rather than dropping drawers). So rather than seek a latrine/toilet, I paused next to a wall, thinking, "Well, I'm only exposed from one direction..."

So, of course, a gaggle of schoolchildren emerged from that one direction, led by their dotting grandmothers. One of the grandmothers shook her head at me and clucked, "You come here to learn, but what you learn is to pee in the street".

One year on, I'm learning to note which way the wind blows before lifting my shorts.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Walmart Gives $2 Billion in Food Aid... to America

From the Christian Science Monitor, Wal-Mart has pledged two billion dollars in food aid to help feed hungry Americans. I told this one my Ghanaian coworkers:

Me: Wow! Wal-Mart just pledged $2 billion in food aid!
Jonathan: To Haiti?
Me: No, to America!
Jonathan: $2 million?
Me: No, $2 billion!
Jonathan: Wow... that's the last thing one would ever think of.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

JPAL's new website

JPAL finally put up their new website! It's worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Barbers Without Borders Not Fulfilling Mission

Accra, Ghana

Numerous reports from “the Field” indicate that Barbers Without Borders is not fulfilling their mission to provide affordable yet fashionable hair-styling services for Africa. Ethnic minorities and migrant laborers throughout Africa are living with unkempt hair because the local economy does not support barbers who use scissors. These ethnic minorities – who are often young, often skinny, and often sick – live in constant fear of ridicule by their local partners, who scoff at their unruly hair, dirty clothes and smelly feet. Anyone who visits a government ministry in Africa will quickly note the difference in personal hygiene between the local managers and the minority “technical consultants”.

“We believe that the lack of barbers is the root cause of poor hygiene among migrant laborers in Africa,” said a spokeswomen for Barbers Without Borders who refused to be named because I made her up. “What incentive do they have to shave or wash their feet if their hair is messy anyway? If we can just provide a few more stylists in key areas – Accra, Abijan and Lagos come to mind – we believe that we can unlock the key to growth in hygiene among expatriates in Africa,”.

But if this is the mission of Barbers Without Borders, where are the barbers? Many ethnic minorities and migrant laborers report going months without haircuts, often waiting for “home leave” to get their hair cut. Others take the drastic step of flying to London for the weekend to get haircuts, buy electronics, and go clubbing. But, as if often the case, the hardest hit are those without jobs, working as volunteers or low-wage labor at not-for-profits.

“It can be tragic if you choose the wrong barber,” said one such migrant laborer. “The last haircut I had, I walked out 3/4 of the way through out of sheer frustration; he seemed to be trying to shear me. I tried to clean it up myself when I got home. I did what I could, but, well, you can see the result,” the laborer said sheepishly. He refused to give his name for fear of public shaming, but referred to his latest haircut as “the Skunk” because of the trough the barber carved down the back of his head. “Barbers Without Borders has some questions to answer,” he concluded.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Surveying Christopher Walken

Thanks to my new-found Youtube-downloading capabilities, check out this SNL clip where Christopher Walken fills out the census. Administering questionnaires really feels that hard sometimes.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Watching Youtube on a Slow Connection

WARNING: It's about to get nerdy up in here.

At best, the internet at my house is like a fast 56k connection, and at worst (when it's working at all) I could probably get faster download speeds from my cell phone. I have been using the wget utility to download important files, which works, but wget uses the command line prompt and could never be called user-friendly.

But wget does not work on youtube videos, so I've been totally lost on pop culture. I didn't discover The Rock Obama* until a month ago, and spent probably 45 minutes watching the status bar load (even less fun than watching water boil). You can often view youtube videos by pausing it and waiting for the whole video to load before watching it, but if internet connection drops out while it's loading, you can't resume loading it without completely restarting. This happened probably 5 times while I was trying to watch the This Too Shall Pass* video -- incredibly frustrating!

I think I have found a solution using Firefox plug ins. I had, like Owen Barder, recently switched to Chrome, but might have to switch back now -- these pluggins are great!

The first thing to do is to add the Firefox Downloadhelper plug-in. This lets you download flash videos from Youtube at the click of a button, and is a good solution in and of itself.

Unfortunately, Firefox's download utility isn't made for African connectivity. When the download fails, you can manually restart it and it will actually resume where it left off, but if your internet is bouncing up and down, this is a real pain.

What we need to do is use wget to download the downloadhelper files. If you right click the file in Firefox's download manager, you can select "Copy Link Location" and then paste that into the command line to use with wget... but it's the year 2010, we must be able to do better than that!

Enter VisualWget, a user interface that lets you use wget in a much more friendly environment. And, VisualWget can work with a Firefox pluggin called FlashGot to let you download files from Firefox using wget at the click of a button. This works great for downloading .pdf articles and other links, but I still need to copy and paste the downloadhelper url in to download youtube videos. Also, it can take FOREVER to download, but at least it works!

Steps to Watching Youtube in Sub-Sarahan Africa, Northern New Hampshire, Or Anywhere Else with Bad Connectivity
  1. Add the Downloadhelper Firefox plug in
  2. Download and install VisualWget
  3. Add the Flashgot Firefox plug in
  4. Follow the instructions on the VisualWget website (near the bottom) to add VisualWget as the default FlashGot download utility.
  5. Click the annoying spinning Downloadhelper thinger to start downloading a youtube video

  6. Right click on the file in the downloads box to copy the link location, then cancel the download

  7. Go to Tools > FlashGot > FlashGot All to launch VisualWget

  8. Press control + v in the url box to paste in the link and press OK to start downloading the file
  9. Get back to work. It will download, don't worry!
  10. Once the file downloaded, you may have to edit the file name and delete anything after .flv. You can view it in VLC media player, or use something like Youtube Downloader to convert the file so you can watch it on an ipod.

Now it's time to watch some South Park!

* You can't actually watch either of these from Ghana anymore... Anyone know how to mask your IP address?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"The majority of our students graduate"

The majority of our students graduate. Most see an increase in wages.

That's the ringing endorsement of for-profit schools by a spokeswomen for Corinthian Colleges, Inc, a publicly traded company with $1.4 billion in revenues. An outstanding NYT article calls into question what return on investment students are really getting at these schools, which derive 70-90% of their revenue from federal student aid, could collect $10 billion in federal Pell grants in 2011-2012 under Obama's "college and career" readiness initiatives, yet have 3-year student loan default rates of ~12% and questionable placement success.

Industry advocates argue that they shouldn't be held responsible for the defaults because their recruiters are barred from making promises about future income. To me, that's exactly why they should be held responsible. If taxpayers are going to finance 80% of their revenue, we deserve to know what's going on through readily available data on actual placement rates and future earnings. Right now, I'm making my own decision on whether to seek more schooling. This type of information is essential to informing my decision, and I couldn't imagine choosing a graduate program without it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Phantom Clarinetist

Went out to Duncan's for the ole 1 yr anniversary the other night. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Duncan's as "Nothing more than a few plastic tables out on the street, Duncan's is nevertheless a popular drinking spot with locals."

Wow, to me, it is so much more than a few plastic tables... it's the home of the best banku and tilapia around, for one, and is also (supposedly) the home of the best (and only) cat kebabs around. I suppose I should be thanking LP for keeping all the 2-week tourists out with such an underwhelming description.

Anyway, Duncan's attracts a pretty mixed and middle class expat-local crowd. It is right on the sidewalk, so sometimes different people will wander up and try to sell you random trinkets or Chinese dvds. And if you're lucky a pair of Rastas with a guitar and a djembe will come by to serenade you with torturous 10-minute renditions of "Three Little Birds".

No hawkers this time, but the Rastas were much better musicians than usual. The djembe player was tight, the guitar player knew more than two chords, and they actually harmonized! After a couple of rounds through "Three Little Birds" they started in on Lucky Dube's "Nobody Can Stop Reggae"... and a random obruni popped up from the table next to us with clarinet-in-mouth, busted out a baddass 15 minute clarinet solo and sat back down to his banku and tilapia.

Most unexpected yet awesome musical performance ever.

Did I Give Bad Advice?

Perhaps #10 should be amended to include: and use a mosquito net. New research shows that mosquitoes are more attracted to bear drinkers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

10 Tips for New Expats

Tomorrow marks the end of my first year in Ghana, and I have now spent 2 out of the last 4 years abroad. My brother recently moved to Chile, and just celebrated the end of his first month abroad. I decided to whip up some advice for him and all those other wethorn, green-behind-the-ears expats out there.

  1. Buy a phone with a flashlight
  2. They're nifty, extremely useful, most often very cheap, and a great signal that you don't have bottomless pockets. Well worth the investment, even if you're only visiting.
  3. Learn to sleep in the heat
  4. With my patented 4-step technique!

    1. Lie on your back. Don't bother trying to sleep yet; it's too hot. The goal of this stage is to build of a rich lather of sweat.
    2. Roll on your right side and fall asleep immediately. The sweat evaporating off your back should cool you down just enough to be able to fall asleep. If you don't fall asleep right away... good luck
    3. When you wake up because it's too hot again, switch sides to let the right side's sweaty lather evaporate as you fall back asleep (and let the right half of the sheets dry).
    4. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as needed.

  5. Treat napkins as precious resources
  6. You will get only one. Use it wisely.
  7. Trust your gut
  8. Both in the food and the George Bush ways. If the well lit street feels dangerous, it probably is. If the dark, dingy street feels safe, it just might be. If the street food looks warm and appetizing, it probably is. If the fancy-pants restaurant's food feels suspicious, leave it on your plate.
  9. Be Responsible
  10. Don't dive if you don't know the depth. Utilize body-augmenting technologies (sunscreen, condoms, earplugs). Call your mother (she's worried about you).
  11. Take the bus
  12. Minibuses, Microbuses, Tro-tros, Matatus, Colectivos, whatever they call 'em, hop on. Buy a map and learn the routes. Scope the map during the ride so you can orient yourself when you hop down.
  13. Find your happy place
  14. And go there every time your knees are in your teeth on the bus.
  15. Cut Your Coat to Your Size
  16. Or else people will laugh at you! (My favorite Ghanaian proverb) There are tailors everywhere; there's no excuse to look like a fool. Collared shirts also keep the sun off. And while you're at it, shave.
  17. Dance like a fool
  18. Because life is more fun that way.
  19. When in doubt, drink
  20. The beer is always good to drink.

Monday, March 8, 2010

And We're Back!

Dear Adoring Fans, [Dear Mom and Dad,]

I would like to offer my sincere condolences for the dearth of new material of late. [Sorry I haven't written you.] I was called upon to attend various exigent circumstances that required my diligent attention, leaving nary a moment to spare for my usual pellucid pondering or droll anecdotes. [I was busy have fun with the visiting Girlfriend and -- surprise, surprise -- studying for the GRE]. I will endeavor ameliorate any inimical or disconsolate sentiments arising from my anomalous abeyance through a series of particularly erudite observations and acerbic tales, although my peremptory adherence to an austere regime of vocabulary-augmenting activities may preclude the deluge in postings some my more devoted fans may dream for with cupidity. [I'll try to write some good stories soon to make up for the absence, but I'm also going to keep studying for the GRE, so they may not be as frequent as Mom hopes].

Yours Truly,

[PS I realize how lame and nonsensical this post is... please forgive me... it actually was a great way to study]

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Accra Road Language Part 1: The Art of Honking

Marginal Revolution linked to a Slate piece on the non-verbal signals that drivers give each other in the US. You know, like flashing your lights if there's a speed trap or flashing the bird if you get caught off. These things happen sometimes in the US, but Ghana takes it to a totally different level. You could literally devote an entire blog to this subject, but I'll start with the Art of Honking.

Living in Accra, you quickly learn to distinguish between the three major species of Honk. First, and most critically, there's the "LEAP OUT OF THE WAY RIGHT NOW OR I WILL HIT YOU" Honk, which must be heeded, and sounds like: MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEET.

Then there's the Taxi Honk. Taxi drivers are truly prolific honkers. It would be impossible to overemphasize how often taxis honk. They literally wear out their horn buttons and have to install a new horn trigger on their blinker paddle. Some even install a new steering wheel paddle dedicated solely to honking, to make incessant honking more convenient. Think Formula 1 race car shifting paddles, but dedicated solely to the Art of Honk.

There are two subspecies of Taxi Honk. There's the "WHERE ARE YOU GOING?" honk and the virtually indistinguishable, but less common, "I HAVE PASSENGERS!" honk, which makes hailing a taxi lots of fun. "Where are you going?!" sounds like: MEEET MEEET; and "I have passengers!" sounds like: MEEET MEET. Drivers look befuddled when I can't distinguish between them.

Finally, we have the "I'M DRIVING!" Honk. There is little order to this honk. You can be pull this honk out at any time for any reason, but common uses include approaching a blind corner or an intersection with people, or because it had been more than 3.2 seconds since your last Honk, and you have a compulsion about not going more than 3.2 seconds between Honks. It sounds like: MEET-MEET, MEET-MEET. Some, but not all, taxi drivers also utilize the "I"M DRIVING!" honk, which makes hailing a taxi even more fun.

A quick way to tell who's new to Accra is to watch for people who turn their heads for each honk and people just instinctively leap for the Leap-Out-Of-Harms'-Way honks. The old hands also know to watch out for the old hand signals that tro-tros use to advertise their routes, which will be the subject of Part 2.