Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Stormy Weather

We've had some good storms here recently. Yesterday morning on the way to work we stopped to take a few pictures of this one before driving into it. This, by the way, is what my daily commute looks like. I took these pictures about about 45 km outside of Niamey, the capital. Most of the year it's not nearly this green, but we're in the rainy season now.

Awning Jumping

It goes without saying that the possibility that there may have been a plot to assassinate Obama in Denver is pretty disturbing. But what's up with this?
When authorities knocked on the man’s door, they say he jumped out of his sixth floor window, landing on an awning and running from the scene. They say they soon found him with a broken ankle.
Did this really happen? I know jumping out of windows onto awnings looks great in movies, but it always strikes me as less than believable that (a) there would conveniently happen to be an awning directly below your window on the occasion that you needed to jump out of it, (b) somebody would actually be confident enough in the awning to take the jump, (c) the awning would be strong enough not to let the jumper just tear through it but soft enough that that the person would survive the impact, and (d) there wouldn't be some kind of supporting frame of, say, metal or wood underneath the awning.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Francoise Mbango Etone is Even Awesomer than I Thought!

I mentioned Francoise Mbango Etone in the previous post as my favorite story of these Olympics. After reading this article about her, I like her even more. Since winning gold in the 2004 Athens Olympics she's been more-or-less constantly at odds with the Cameroonian authorities who are eager to exploit her success for their own political purposes. The president of the Cameroon Athletics Federation went as far as to claim that "Francoise Mbango does not respect Cameroon. She has rubbed Cameroon in mud on numerous occasions". Of course nobody has shown less respect for the people of Cameroon or done more to muddy the name of that country than Paul Biya, the president since 1982, and his famously corrupt regime but that's beside the main point, which is that Mbango's Olympic success occurred in spite of the efforts of the Cameroonian authorities, not because of them.

In addition to being a good anecdote about a determined woman persevering over the forces that conspired to hold her back, I like this story because it's a happy version of a more somber, generic story about the obstacles that confront talented people in corrupt environments. This story is easily recognizable to anyone who has spent time in Africa because it happens every day. I know a very successful local artisan who was recently almost put out of business because some local elites resented how much money he was making purely on his own ability. I have a hard working Nigerienne friend with a graduate degree from a US university who struggled to find a job here in Niamey where visiting Le Directeur at a hotel room wasn't part of the interview. These stories are a dime a dozen. The tragedy is not just that talented individuals are prevented at every opportunity from making the most of their abilities, it's also that countries like Cameroon and Niger desperately need the skills and efforts of the same people who are the biggest targets for this kind of exploitation.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Non-Main Events

Despite my expertise on the subject, I haven’t paid much attention to this year’s Olympics. I’ve followed the main stories a little bit—Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals, the Jamaicans’ dominance of the sprinting events—but I haven’t been especially drawn in. I don’t know if this says more about the Olympics, professional athletes, or my own curmudgeonly outlook, but I feel like it’s only a matter of time before either Phelps or the Jamaican track team is accused of doping. Anyway, what makes the Olympics interesting to me are the less anticipated stories that tend to occur away from the main events. Remember that swimmer from (I think) Central African Republic in the 2000 Olympics who had to swim a qualifying heat that was the longest distance he ever swam in his life?

Probably my favorite story from these games so far is Francoise Mbango Etone, the Cameroonian winner of the gold medal in the women’s triple jump. Unsponsored and self-coached, the 32-year-old worked her way back to the gold medal despite taking two years off since winning gold in the 2004 Olympics because she was injured and gave birth. But my favorite part was the moment after her first-place finish became official. She ran over to the stands to celebrate with her supporters (her family, I assume) and somebody handed her a Cameroonian flag. Instead of the usual track star routine of prancing around the stadium waving the flag or draping it over her shoulders, she did what virtually every African woman I’ve ever met would do when handed a colorful piece of fabric that size. She wrapped it around her waist like a pagne and went on with her business.

Friday, August 15, 2008


This short article on Cote d'Ivoire's declining tourism industry mentions a beach village named Assouindé. As a volunteer in Cote d'Ivoire, I spent about a week there between finishing pre-service training and installing myself in my village. This post-training Assouindé trip was something of a tradition among PCVs, and volunteers found reasons to spend time at Assouindé on countless other occasions as well.

The default hotel for PCVs in Assouindé was called Hotel l'Amitié (Friendship Hotel). They had little bungalows right on the beach that were pretty bare-bones but dirt cheap. They also had a big wooden deck, where if you could tolerate waiting several hours for your food, they served their specialty of pasta with a red, creamy, seafood sauce that I still think about six years later. Mosts nights there were bonfires and drumming on the beach. There was an older woman in the village who sold freshly made fruit juices. Next door to the hotel there was an Italian man with a pet chimpanzee who ran a little cafe where you could get good coffee or limoncello. If you wanted anything else, say, some bangui (palm wine) or coutoucou (local hard liquor), the guy who ran l'Amitié would get it for you.

I heard through the Peace Corps rumor mill that l'Amitié was burned down by locals not long after the war broke out. Its owners, like the men interviewed in the tourism story, were Burkinabé and would have made natural targets in the ethnic violence that was widespread in the early phase of the war.

Cote d'Ivoire is supposed to have presidential and legislative elections in November as part of the national reconciliation. The peace process has been characterized by a number of apparent breakthroughs that have ultimately failed to hold up, and it would be foolish for an outside observer to predict whether this time things will be any different. Nevertheless, I'm hopeful and optimistic that the US isn't the only country that will be changing direction in November.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

No Accounting for Taste

Probably my favorite development blog is that of Chris Blattman, a Yale professor who focuses mostly on Africa and offers a good mix of commentary on current events, academic research, and anecdotes drawn from his own experiences.

Yesterday Blattman commented on the peculiar celebrity status of soft rock crooner Michael Bolton in the war torn African countries of Liberia and Uganda, noting also that in northern Uganda, "Bolton is easily eclipsed by Dolly Parton and Bette Midler."

Although I'm sure I've been forced to listen to my share of those three artists over the years, none of them would have been on my list of "noteworthy random Western singers you hear a lot of in Africa". Off the top of my head, my list would probably begin with Celine Dion, Lionel Richie (esp "stuck on you"), and the Scorpions (huge in Madagascar!), although I'm sure I'm neglecting some important ones here.

Then there's the curious phenomenon of this song, which also happens to be the current ring tone on my cell phone.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Good News for Coffee Drinkers (?)

This is sort of a curious article about the health effects of coffee from the New York Times. It's entitled "Sorting Out Coffee's Contradictions" and one of the early paragraphs asserts that "hardly a month goes by without a report that hails coffee, tea or caffeine as healthful or damns them as potential killers." Such an opening led me to assume that the research shows a mixed bag of positive and negative health effects. But the actual research cited in the article seems to be overwhelmingly positive. A more appropriate summary would seem to be, "We used to think coffee was pretty bad for you, but the more recent studies show the dangers are overblown and it's actually pretty good for you". The main points from the article:
  • Hydration. They used to think that caffeinated drinks were diuretics (i.e. they make you pee) but this turns out only to be true when you consume caffeine at very high dosages (bigger than a Starbuck's 'grande').

  • Heart disease. There's no enduring evidence showing a greater risk of heart attacks or abnormal heart rhythm among regular coffee drinkers. In fact, coffee may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

  • Blood pressure. No apparent association between coffee and high blood pressure, although cola apparently does contribute to high blood pressure.

  • Cancer. Pancreatic or kidney cancer? "Little to no effect". Liver cancer? Coffee may lower your risk. Breast cancer? No connection.

  • Bone loss. Kind of ambiguous results, but whatever negative effects coffee might have on calcium levels are more than made up for if you already consume the recommended amount of calcium in your diet.

  • Weight loss. Coffee apparently speeds up your metabolism so you burn more calories, but long-term studies show either no connection between weight and coffee or greater weight gain among coffee drinkers. So you're not going to lose weight by drinking coffee, but I'd argue that if coffee drinking is the best weight loss plan you can come up with then you probably deserve to stay chubby.

  • Exercise. Coffee apparently augments the benefits of aerobic and anaerobic exercise.

  • Parkinson's disease. Coffee drinkers (but not decaf drinkers!) had 30 percent lower risk of Parkinson's disease in a recent review of studies.

  • Type 2 diabetes. People who drink four to six cups of coffee per day (both regular and decaf) had a 28 percent lower risk of this kind of diabetes, according to another recent review.
And now for the real shocker:
  • Mood and mental performance. Surprise! Coffee drinkers "report an improved sense of well-being, happiness, energy, alertness and sociability".

Really, that's pretty much the whole article. So please show me the "contradictions" and the studies that damn coffee as a potential killer that reportedly come out every month. Otherwise I'll just have to conclude that all that coffee I drink is pretty good for me.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Olympic Medals, Social Mobility, and Poverty Reduction

Friends who endured the last semester of graduate school with me may remember my frequent references to a shadowy endeavor I usually called "the Olympics paper". Just in time for Beijing, my former professor and I have finally thrown open the doors to this project and shocked the world with our insights about why India, despite a huge population and a rapidly growing economy, wins so few Olympic medals. Well, that's probably an exaggeration, but we did get this writeup in the UK-based Guardian:

Controversially, the paper contends that social mobility is the key to countries' success at the Olympics. Populations that are better informed and better connected to opportunities, in societies where information and access are widespread "tend to win a higher share of Olympic medals", they said.

It's probably natural to have some quibbles about the way somebody characterizes and reports on something you spent so much time on, and I'm not sure how I feel about getting hit with the "academic" tag, but the article is a pretty good summary of our paper. Those interested in taking a look at the paper itself may do so here.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Hell is an Airport in Africa

I had a great month of July in the States. I spent a lot of quality time with my family, managed to run just about all the errands on my list, reconnected with more friends than I would have thought possible given the limited time, and had a productive week of work related meetings and activities in Washington. But after all the traveling and living out of my suitcases for a month, I was anxious to get back to my home in Niger where I could catch my breath a little bit and get back to work on a few things that have been hanging over my head in the “need to get done” file.

My trip back didn't exactly go smoothly. The itinerary had me flying from Washington to Dakar, Senegal, where I was scheduled to have a 9 hour layover before continuing on to Niamey (via Bamako, Mali). My flight out of Dakar was canceled when the airport workers in Niamey went on strike but they put me on the next flight, two days later. That second flight was overbooked (I'm assuming because of all the people who had been left stranded by the strike two days earlier) and I was one of the ones who got bumped, so they told me I'd have to wait for the next flight, three days later. The third time proved to be the charm and after a 5 hour delay I finally left Dakar on Monday evening, arriving at my house at 3 AM yesterday (Tuesday) morning. I spent most of the day yesterday back at the Niamey airport trying to get my bags out of customs but eventually concluded my arrival yesterday afternoon, about a week after leaving Washington.

As luck would have it, my friend Tim (Timmy, to a few of the Rest’s loyal readers, who previously contributed a few photos of a fish he ate in Uganda) recently took a job in Dakar and moved there about three weeks ago. So not only was I able to avoid taking a hotel room and trying to kill time for almost a week in a completely unfamiliar city, I also got to do a good amount of catching up with Tim, who I hadn’t seen in over a year and who I missed being able to see in Washington by just a few days. We explored his new neighborhood for Senegalese food, wrestled with the kids who live next door to him and got to know the rest of their family, spent a day at the beach, and revived a few ongoing arguments dating back to 2002. In the end, I felt much less like a stranded traveler than somebody who won an unexpected trip to visit Tim in Dakar for a few days.

Feel free to interpret this story as a little parable about how I experience life as a foreigner in Africa. Rarely do things work out as planned, or on schedule, but for every frustrating experience there seems to be more than enough serendipity to compensate.

Monday, June 30, 2008

In Transit

Just a quick note from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. I'm off to the States for the next month. I'll be in Denver for a few days, followed by a trip to Alaska then a couple weeks in Washington for work related stuff.

I watched 10,000 BC on the plane from Niamey to Paris. What an wretched movie. I sure hope I don't know anybody who paid good money to see that abomination in the theater. I shudder to thing of what piece of cinematic garbage is waiting for me on the next flight.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Disappointed in Obama

I've been known to write the occasional glowing post about Barack Obama, but I won't shy away from pointing out an aspect of his campaign that has so far disappointed me: his repeated snubbing of Muslims. Obama declined offers from Keith Ellison, the first and only Muslim congressman, to speak on his behalf. Two Obama supporting Muslim women wearing head scarves were recently asked not to stand behind the candidate during a speech in Detroit for fear they might be caught by the TV cameras. Obama routinely visits churches and synagogues but won't be seen anywhere near a mosque. And his own website refers to the (false) claim that "Barack Obama is a Muslim" as a "smear". False? Obviously. A rumor spread in bad faith intended to appeal to xenophobic instincts? Certainly. But a smear? Only if you concede that there's something inherently wrong or undesirable about being a Muslim in the first place.

I understand that there are people out there actively trying to push the idea that Obama is a secret Muslim radical who, if elected, will enact Sharia law and try to destroy the United States from within. And I also understand that the number of Americans who draw little or no distinction between Islam and terrorism is unfortunately high. But Obama's response to this whisper campaign is both cowardly and stupid. Shunning public appearances that could be interpreted as supportive of Islam and labeling the word Muslim as a smear are tacit endorsements of anti-Muslim bigotry. It's cowardly because it's a transparent compromise on principle for the sake of political expediency.

And it's stupid because ultimately it's probably not very politically expedient either. I would imagine that the fraction of the American electorate who could be convinced that Obama is a Muslim is made up almost entirely of people who weren't going to vote for him anyway. More significantly, striking this defensive posture of denying the rumors but acquiescing to the bigotry behind them makes him look like a weak candidate. It makes him look like somebody who can be pushed around by the purveyors of this kind of crap. That, I would argue, is more likely to be politically damaging than a visit to a mosque would ever be.

Maybe I'm especially sensitive to this because the overwhelming majority of people I interact with on a daily basis are Muslims but I get tired of making excuses for this stuff. Even here in Niger, people are following this election in much greater detail than most Americans realize. It's not pleasant having to explain to Muslim friends why Obama has to have a website insisting that he's not Muslim, or why he can't be photographed with women wearing head scarves in the background.

John Cole has a good post on this as well.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Slice of Life

Yesterday evening the president announced that people should not work today because the government needs to conduct a population census and they want people home where they can be counted. First of all this seems like the kind of announcement that could have been made at least a day or two ahead of time. Second, it's unclear (to me) exactly what an announcement like this means. I guess the president can cancel work for all public sector employees without too much difficulty, but could non-government workers be punished for working today? The question is entirely academic, because of course nobody would dream of disobeying this kind of instruction from the president. People just assume (and grant) that the president has the authority to tell them not to work.

Anyway I came to the research station with a few other people this morning but the place is empty so we'll be leaving by noon. I predict that by the end of today I won't be able to find a single Nigerien who was counted for this census.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How Quickly We Forget

I see that Angelina Jolie ranks #3 on Forbes list of the 100 most powerful celebrities. The article notes her "peace activism" and speculates that, "Photos of her twins should fetch the highest price ever for baby snaps. She'll probably give the money to charity."

Maybe so, but my first thought was of Bill Simmons's recent remark:
People can change, but not that much. Even Angelina Jolie. ... I don't care how many kids she has, how normal she seems and how much good she does, deep down, she's still the crazy woman who wore Billy Bob Thornton's blood around her neck a few years ago.

Reason to Hate CNN International #2: The Weather

Reporting the weather forecast is one of the more useful functions of TV news. It's nice to have some way to anticipate whether you should bring an umbrella to work today or consider canceling that picnic you had planned for the weekend. But 99% of what's useful about knowing weather conditions is only locally relevant. What is the point in trying to report "the weather" on a global news network?

CNNi fills a lot of airtime with a graphic that shows current conditions in a random smattering of 20 or so cities while some new age music plays in the background. I'm telling you, it's on so often I hear the music in my sleep. And it's next to useless! Great. I now know it's 25 degrees in Muscat. Now please show me again 5 minutes from now. (I consider myself pretty good with my world cities and I had to look that one up, but at least I know it's partly cloudy there with a chance of rain.) Unsurprisingly, Niamey never makes the cut. But even if they decided viewers in Niamey could also benefit from knowing current conditions and graciously added us to the rotation of cities, what are the odds that I'd be watching (or paying attention) on the occasion when Niamey's number comes up?

What you also get, slightly less frequency but still multiple times every hour, is the typical "weatherman/woman standing in front of the map" routine. I think they throw darts at a spinning globe once or twice a day when they feel like changing the map. This morning I got a nice rundown of conditions in the US (all temperatures in degrees Celsius, of course). Tomorrow I'm hoping for Australia.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

African Fish Blogging

I don't think the photo really captures it, but this was a gigantic fish that some friends and I ate last weekend. If you define a "person-meal" as the amount one person eats for one meal, this fish was well over ten person-meals. It was stuffed full of vermicelli, potatoes, and vegetables, with all the bones removed. It was then baked in an oven for over an hour and eventually served on top of a heaping pile of fried rice (not shown). Definitely the best meal I've had since I've been here.

I tend to report all of my significant dining and gastronomic experiences to my friend Tim, who has much more refined tastes in these matters than I do. He appreciated my description of this meal, but felt that it probably didn't compare to the fish he ate in Uganda several months ago, shown below in "before and after" mode.

Update: I imagine there are a lot of these "memorable meal" photos floating around out there. Feel free to send some my way and I'll continue to post the good ones. I think I remember some quality food pictures from a certain evening at Chamas Brazilian Steakhouse in Durham last year.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Vendredi at Volume 5

One of the real gems of my satellite TV package so far has been Trace TV, the “urban channel”. I’m not sure how I survived without it for so long. I haven’t spent much time trying to figure out how global they are or from where they broadcast (some mysteries are better left unexplored) but the fact that you can’t have Trace on for one hour without seeing this video promoting condom use makes me think it must be based in (or at least targeted to) francophone Africa. The title means “don’t even think about it”.

On Flopping

I noticed (via Isaac) that the NBA is going to start fining players for flopping. This is, of course, good news at least insofar as it represents a recognition of the problem on the part of the league but I’m pretty doubtful that it will have much of an effect.

But this reminds me of something I often think about when watching soccer. Although I’m far from being the most knowledgeable or loyal soccer fan, I have a healthy appreciation for the game and I enjoy watching it—especially the World Cup. Like a lot of Americans who only watch soccer on occasion and who didn’t grow up in a soccer-obsessed culture, I sometimes find it hard not to be put off by the degree to which flopping and pretending to be severely injured are just “part of the game”. Of course some individuals, teams, leagues and countries are guiltier of this than others (I’m looking at you, Italy) but as a rule I think it’s safe to say that flopping plays a bigger role in soccer than in any other major sport. Additionally, flopping has potentially greater consequences in soccer because a single goal resulting from a flop in the penalty area has a much greater effect on a match than, say, two erroneously awarded free throws has on a basketball game.

Not to put too much emphasis on the cultural significance of this, but sometimes this seems as plausible an explanation as any for why the US so stubbornly refuses to become a soccer loving country. It seems like a large part of being a celebrated athlete in the US is about being (or seeming) tough: playing through injury, never missing a game, jumping back up on your feet after getting knocked down. Most American sports fans find something undignified about stopping the game to roll around on the ground and cry out in pain for several minutes, only to return immediately to the game without so much as a limp, as happens routinely in soccer. Sure, you see some flopping in the NBA and some exaggeration in the NFL (those receivers are pretty good at drawing pass interference penalties), but nothing like the shrieking in pain, carried off the field on a stretcher, “I’ll never walk again”, routine that you see in pretty much every soccer match.

Rasheed Wallace nicely captures the sentiments of many an American sports fan:
"All that bull[expletive]-ass calls they had out there. With Mike [Callahan] and Kenny [Mauer] -- you've all seen that [expletive]," Wallace said. "You saw them calls. The cats are flopping all over the floor and they're calling that [expletive]. That [expletive] ain't basketball out there. It's all [expletive] entertainment. You all should know that [expletive]. It's all [expletive] entertainment."

That also reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read this book for about two years now.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cry Me a River

I'm getting a bit tired of all these stories about "pain at the pump" because unfortunate Americans are now paying $4 for a gallon of gas. Yes, it sucks when prices shoot up. And it's true that poorer people are harder hit by these kind of price spikes because gas makes up a larger proportion of their expenses than for rich folks. It's also true that I paid $6.08 per gallon this weekend and I live in one of the poorest countries in the world. It's not as if Americans haven't known about the volatility of oil prices for decades. It's just that we've chosen to do nothing about it. Worse, actually, we've chosen to spend a lot of public money on things that ensured that Americans become increasingly dependent on oil and, therefore, increasingly vulnerable to these kinds of price fluctuations. Rather than calling oil company executives to Capital Hill to excoriate them for making too much money maybe we should, you know, stop giving them tax breaks, subsidies, and a strong hand in setting the country's energy policy.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Vendredi at Volume 5

It's been a while since I posted anything for VV5. This isn't much of a video, but the song is nice. Another Malian! Enjoy

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


For loyal readers of the Rest who prefer to get their bloggy information via Google Reader or some other aggregator, this site now features an RSS feed.

Dust and Rain

Last night it poured in Niamey. Aside from a few scattered drops here and there, this is the first rain since September and ought to mark the end of the dry season.

I was out running errands in town at about 6:30 and I saw a towering red cloud of dust bearing down on the city. People had told me that these big early season rains are often preceded by dust storms, but it was a much more dramatic event than I had expected. This giant, churning red wall just kept getting closer and closer, then within the space of about 30 seconds it went from full daylight to being dark enough that you couldn't drive without headlights (I was driving at the time). The wind whipped up and the dim light that remained was eerily red.

The rain came maybe 30 minutes later and didn't waste any time in exposing the places where my roof leaks, the biggest leak being, of course, directly above my TV, cable box, and DVD player.

My description here really doesn't do justice to how cool this dust storm was. I'll try and get some pictures next time it happens.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reason to Hate CNN International #1: It's Everywhere and Unavoidable

I'm kind of a junkie for news and current events. Considering I've lived overseas in non-English speaking countries for roughly five of the past ten years, this hasn't always been an easy hobby to keep up with. My thirst for international English language news while living abroad has often forced me under the oppressive thumb of the hegemon, CNN International. After years of suffering under this abomination of a news channel I've decided to use this space to fight back by listing all the reasons I can think of to hate CNN International.

For reasons I'll elaborate on in future posts, it truly is a terrible, terrible news source to be forced to depend on. But if English is your most comfortable language, you're living or traveling outside of the English speaking world, and you're the kind of person who can't go five minutes without wondering if there's been a coup d'état, cyclone, or terrorist attack somewhere, there is simply no way to avoid it. If you're a college student living abroad for the first time and CNN International is being pumped into your bedroom while the lurid details of the president's affair with his intern are being broadcast to the world, are you going to change the channel to watch somebody babble incomprehensibly in Swedish? If you're living in a small African village relying almost exclusively on a shortwave radio and the BBC World Service to tell you what's happening in the world and your employer puts you up for a few days in a hotel with a TV and only one English channel, would you have the willpower to avert your attention?

Well, me neither. And when I finally broke down last week and got a satellite TV connection in my house, it was entirely predictable that I'd be drawn back to my old nemesis. Did Obama pick up any more superdelegates? Is the Burmese junta going to allow foreigners to deliver aid to the cyclone victims? What's happening in the NBA playoffs? Only one way to find out...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Guilty as Charged

Sometimes you stumble across an internet pearl of wisdom that seems to have been written especially for you. This letter to a young procrastinator makes me feel like the author was looking at an x-ray of my soul.

I'm here to tell you that it was none of these things. The root cause of my procrastination, in technical terms, is this: I'm lazy. Extremely lazy.

Don't judge, pal—you're lazy, too. It's why you procrastinate. When there's a difficult, disagreeable, or tedious chore that needs to get done, guess what? You don't want to do it. So you don't. Until you have to.

It's just that simple, my slothful friend. And guess what else? The trick to overcoming procrastination is even simpler. Ready? Here it is:

Get off your fat badonk and stop procrastinating. Right now. No, not after the Gilmore Girls rerun ends. Now now.

Will you do this? No. You will not. You will dabble at the crossword for a while. Later, you might get a yogurt. Eventually, you'll start reading pointless crap on the Internet. You see, you're doing it as we speak! Because: You are lazy.

Anyway, back to scouring the internet for videos of famous people exploding into fits of anger in front of the camera. But really, tomorrow I'm going to sit down, focus, and really get some things done!

Monday, May 12, 2008

May 12th

I just wanted to write a quick post to say happy birthday to this blog's most loyal reader. Love you, mom!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

National Popular Vote

Did you know that four years from now we might actually be preparing for a US presidential election in which the winner will be chosen by the national popular vote rather than the Electoral College? Hard to believe but true. The campaign to make this happen is known as the National Popular Vote and it is already well on its way to achieving its goal.

The Electoral College system creates two distinct problems. First, and most obviously, it allows for the possibility that the candidate receiving fewer overall votes can still technically win an election. This has happened 4 times in American history, in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. The second and perhaps more pernicious problem with the Electoral College system is that it creates a situation in which the only votes that matter, from the perspective of candidates, are those in the few “battleground states” that could go either way. Candidates have little reason to campaign—and people little reason to vote—outside of those states.

The originators of the NPV effort found a way to effectively do away with the Electoral College without the nearly impossible task of changing the constitution. Simply put, the NPV campaign involves convincing states, one state at a time, to change their laws so that they cast their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote rather than the winner of the particular state.

Here’s a slightly longer way of putting it:

The Constitution gives states the power to decide how to allocate the electors who cast the vote for the president. The National Popular Vote is a campaign to get each state to pass a law entering into a binding agreement to award all their electors to the candidate who wins the national popular vote in all fifty states and Washington, D.C. This provision would only go into effect when states whose electoral votes total a majority of the Electoral College—currently, 270 votes—sign the compact. When that happens, whichever candidate wins the popular vote will automatically garner a majority of the electoral votes. While this arrangement is rather complex, it has the advantage of being fair and utterly nonpartisan—and could take effect as soon as enough large states agree to participate. If that happens, it would force public officials to represent a much broader segment of the populace out of electoral self-interest.
That’s from a good piece in the Washington Monthly that explains in greater detail the problems with the current system and this new effort to “dump the Electoral College without changing the constitution”. The most consistent and eloquent advocate of NPV that I know of is Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, whose posts on the subject I always enjoy and recommend. Four states representing 50 electoral votes have already passed laws binding them to the NPV plan.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

But It's a Dry Heat

Yes, I'm still alive. It's just that I've decamped to Maradi for a month or so where I'm pretty busy and don't have regular internet access.

I suspect everybody who's lived in hot places has about 10,000 stories like this, but they never get old. If you pay any attention to the little weather sticker on the right side of this page, you will have noticed that it's pretty hot here these days. We're not yet in the hottest part of the hot season, but we're not too far off, either. Mercifully it seems to be a few degrees cooler here in Maradi where I've been for over 2 weeks than in Niamey.

Anyway, yesterday evening I left the compound where I'm staying at about 6:00 to go look for something to eat. The guard at the gate came out of his little patch of shade to open the gate for me and I waved to him on my way out. When I came back around 10:00 the same guard was bundled up in a fleece jacket, a knit hat, and gloves. To confirm my suspicion that the next ice age hadn't arrived during the previous three hours, I checked my little thermometer/alarm clock when I got back to my room: 94 degrees.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Maradi Journal

One of my main activities during my time here is designing and carrying out a household survey aimed at assessing the adoption and impacts of certain tree management practices. I'm planning on launching the survey at the beginning of April, and last week I was in Maradi, the region to be surveyed, gathering some last minute information and training the people who will actually be in the field administering the survey questionnaires. Since I hadn't posted anything here in ages I decided to keep a journal of my trip to give a better idea of the kind of stuff I'm involved with on a day to day basis. I had intended to post this on Monday, but my computer's been giving me trouble and I've been kind of swamped. So here it is, my Maradi journal from last week.

Sunday, March 16. The drive from Niamey to Maradi took about 11.5 hours. Every time I’ve made this trip it’s taken pretty close to 12 hours. Every time I’ve planned for this trip people have insisted that it will take a maximum of 9 or 10 hours. I’m traveling with Abdoulaye, who’s helping me with logistics, technical stuff, and most importantly the training of the enumerators who will be carrying out the surveys. He and I are taking turns driving the old Toyota pickup that we’ll be using for the week, which is much more interesting (and lighter on my limited funds) than the usual arrangement of taking an official driver on these kinds of trips. The truck has no AC so we drove all day with the windows open and my white t-shirt was a nice shade of reddish-brown by the time we arrived. On a road like this one (the country’s main highway connecting the main cities) there’s really nothing you can do to avoid regularly slamming into potholes at high speed. Because of the bumps the electric cables keep coming detached from the battery so every time we turn of the ignition we have to reattach the battery before we can continue. You can tell right away when the cable had detached because the horn, which we use frequently, stops working. Long day, but it feels good to have the trip underway and I tend to enjoy these long drives as a chance to get out and see the countryside.Monday, March 17. Maradi is noticeably cooler than Niamey. I used hot water in the shower this morning, which I haven’t done for over a month now in Niamey. We’re pretty close to the Nigerian border here—somebody told me it was less than 50 kilometers—and the influence is noticeable: a lot of people speak English here, some of the communities in this region have officially adopted Sharia law, the markets and roadsides are full of cheap (smuggled) Nigerian goods, etc.

We had a surprisingly productive morning today so we were able to take it easy most of the afternoon. Our goals for the day were to make contact with some people at the national agricultural research institute who are helping with some of our activities, to visit the director of the Ministry of Environment for this region to explain what we’re doing and try to collect some information on environmental projects that have intervened in the region, and to visit another government office that is responsible for the regional development plan to try and get a list of the important local markets in the region.

I was pretty skeptical about the latter two goals. I’m no stranger to these kinds of visits to government offices and in my experience you almost never leave with what you came for (Back in November or December, Abdoulaye and I spent three days in a row doing these visits at the national level ministries in Niamey and accomplished absolutely nothing). But luck was on our side today. Turns out the new Director of Environment for this region is somebody close to Abdoulaye’s family. Abdoulaye didn’t know he was the director until we walked in the door, but once they saw each other it was clear that the guy was going to do everything he could to help us. The information we’re looking for doesn’t currently exist in any organized form, but he’s asking all the sub-regional offices to produce this information that his office will then summarize in a list which he promised us by the end of the week.

The list of regional markets that we were looking for didn’t exist either, but the guy we spoke to turned out to be pretty helpful. He called a couple of his colleagues into the room, guys who spend a lot of time monitoring markets in the Maradi region (they have to monitor them in order to collect taxes on the transactions that occur). This group sat around for about an hour or so shouting out the names of market towns as they came to mind, until we eventually ended up with what seems like a pretty comprehensive list of about 80 markets.

Having made more progress at the government offices in a morning than I had expected we’d make all week, we were able to relax a little in the afternoon and turn our attention to the main goal of the week: finding, selecting, and training the enumerators for the household survey.

Tuesday, March 18. This morning we met with a group of 20 potential enumerators. We’re expecting to end up with 12, but we expect some attrition and it’s probable that some of those who came won’t have the skills to be able to do what we want them to. The meeting started the typical two hours behind schedule, and we spent the whole day in a hot stuffy room reading through the 2 questionnaires and trying to clarify what information we are after, not as simple a task as it might seem. Abdoulaye, who’s run these kinds of trainings before, was invaluable.

We found out today that there is a religious holiday this week and a pubic sector strike is planned for Thursday. You might think that an important religious holiday is something we obviously would have planned around, or that on Tuesday people could agree on whether the holiday is on Wednesday or Thursday, but in both cases you’d be wrong. Abdoulaye seems confident that neither of these events will mess up our schedule too much, so I’m not especially worried. We always have the option of spending an additional day or two here if necessary.

Amazingly, we got a call from the Director of Environment’s office saying the list we requested yesterday is ready for us to pick up. Abdoulaye said we would pick it up tomorrow but I insisted we go tonight (if the holiday turns out to be tomorrow, who knows if anybody will be there to give us the list). After getting the list we went to visit a village about 15 km out of town where we’re going to take our enumerators tomorrow to run a test of the survey questionnaires. We met with the Mai Gari (the chief of the village), explained what we wanted to do and got his permission.

A very long day, but another productive one.

Wednesday, March 19. Today we took our newly trained enumerators to a nearby village for a test run of the survey questionnaire. The purpose of this exercise is both to give the enumerators some practice in administering the questionnaire and to identify questions that are unclear or otherwise problematic. It’s also a chance for us to evaluate the enumerators; to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. The exercise took much longer than expected, about 4 or 5 hours per questionnaire. I was a bit discouraged by the pace of things, and by the fact that the enumerators seemed to have a lot of trouble with things I thought we had clarified on Tuesday. I guess that’s why you do the test run in the first place. Still, it was fun to see this questionnaire that I’ve been tinkering with for months actually put into action. Abdoulaye and I also went through the questionnaire with one of the farmers.

I spent all evening reviewing and “grading” questionnaires to find faults and to identify weak enumerators.

Thursday, March 20. Reconvened with enumerators to debrief on Wednesday’s exercise and discuss the problems we found with their questionnaires. This session consisted of a lot of shouting. We finished at lunchtime and spent the afternoon making a few more visits and running errands in Maradi. Abdoulaye and I met up at about 8:00 to make our final selection of enumerators and notify them.

Friday, March 21. Made pretty good time on the return trip to Niamey despite stopping to change a flat tire and then stopping again to get it repaired. Current plan is to return to Maradi a week from Sunday to launch the actual survey.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Ivan the Terrible

If you're interested in making a donation to support the response to Cyclone Ivan on Madagascar's east coast, you can do so here through CARE International. Some images of the damage are beginning to emerge on YouTube (for example, here and here).

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Earth Album

I could waste some serious time on this website. The only reason I was able to tear myself away after only 30 minutes or so was that I was frustrated with how long it was taking to load all the photos. Enjoy.

Good as New

I recognize that my great weakness as a blogger is that I don't write often enough about day-to-day stuff. A lot of people have asked me what ever happened to my car after the incident last month. Well, after a few delays and a bit of the expected grumbling about how the price we had agreed on wasn't enough for how much work the job turned out to be, I got the car back and was very pleasantly surprised. Unless you knew what you were looking for, you really wouldn't know at all how bad the damage was. Take a look:
The front-left of the car was where the impact was. If you look closely, you might notice that the entire front of the car is now a slighly different shade of red than the rest of the car because they had to paint the entire front section. The paint is the same color, it's just that it hasn't faded like the paint on the rest of the car.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Vendredi at Volume 5

It's been a while since I posted something in the Vendredi at Volume 5 tradition. I've been thinking a lot this past week about my friends in Madagascar who were basically a bull's eye for Cyclone Ivan (latest report of damage and recovery efforts here). Today's installment of VV5 is a song with a particular relevance to this region of Madagascar, and a special sentimental resonance among my group of friends. Hope everybody is OK.

Bush as PCV

It occurred to me for the first time when watching this video of Bush on his visit to Liberia that he probably would have done a great job as a Peace Corps volunteer somewhere in Africa. His personal interest in the development of Africa seems genuine to me and he's been bolder than he probably ever needed to be in pushing some big initiatives related to development and fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS (the verdict is still out, in my opinion, on whether MCC will revolutionize development assitance. PEPFAR, despite the controversial "abstinence only" aspect of it, certainly represents a serious commitment to do something about HIV). Add to this his jocular style, his fondness for riding mountain bikes, and his apparently boundless capacity for optimism in the face of disaster, and you just may have the ideal Peace Corps volunteer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Latest on That Cyclone

Sounds pretty grim. Seems like the relief workers haven't been able to get in yet to check out the damage but they're getting reports that at least one hotel collapsed.

Update: here's a more recent report. There's still not a while lot of information, but this detail jumped out at me because the island of Ste. Marie was directly off the coast from where I lived. On a clear day you can stand just outside of town and make out certain landmarks on the island:
On Sainte Marie, a 60km long island off Madagascar's northeast coast, which bore the brunt of the cyclone, "75 percent of the houses have been destroyed," Styvanley Soa said.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hold the Bacon, Please

If you're interested in the sorts of things that I'm interested in, then seeing another article about assistance for Africa set in a "Jeffrey Sachs versus William Easterly" framework is about as remarkable as flipping through TV stations and finding that some version of Law and Order is on. I actually found this one to be pretty good and I'd say I generally agree with this author. But it also falls prey to a really irritating habit among people who write about this stuff. After a rather lengthy discussion of what's wrong with the paternalism of the Sachs approach, he concludes that aid policies should rather be informed by the ideas of Francis Bacon, Hernando de Soto, Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith. In other words, just let capitalism rip and everything else will sort itself out. This kind of market ideology is every bit as simplistic and foolish as the paternalism of Sachs, Bono and Madonna. And it's not like it hasn't been tried, either. A generation of (failed) World Bank and IMF policies were borne of exactly this idea that you just had to get the broad, macroeconomic conditions right and growth and prosperity would follow.

The irritating habit I refer to isn't the right-wing tilt of this guy's perspective, it's the notion that there's an alternative set of "good ideas for development" that we're just not putting into practice. Yes, it's stupid of somebody like Sachs to argue that, essentially, we've figured out how to make development happen and the current challenge is merely mobilizing the resources to carry it out. It's equally stupid to argue that the solution to global poverty is for everybody to read a bit more Bacon and Hayek.

The unfortunate truth is that nobody has really figured out "development" or how to bring it about. The healthy, vibrant, wealth creating, poverty reducing economies of the world are the exceptions, not the rule.

Cyclone Ivan

If you asked me to take a map of Madagascar and point to the place I used to live, I'd have trouble getting any closer than the orange dot on this map representing the latest location of a massive tropical cyclone. In 2004, when I was living there, we had a cyclone that missed us by 100 km or so and it was a pretty frightening experience. Most houses are made of relatively flimsy local materials. The corrugated metal roofs on the nicer buildings are only held in place by a few nails, and when they blow off they basically become giant flying blades. The number of brick buildings is nowhere near enough to accommodate the local population. Flooding is also a serious problem, as the town is located on the coast at the mouth of a big river. What I really remember, though, is the noise. It was just hour after hour of this unrelenting groaning sound that was loud enough to make communication difficult and sleep impossible.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Two Tuaregs Walk Into a Bar...

File this under "things you'd never see in an article about the US":
In April, Niger authorities even plan to organise a "National Week of Ethnic Jokes" with radio programmes, conferences, joke competitions and cultural evenings.

Meanwhile, the article from which this detail was drawn strikes me as exceedingly stupid. The gist of it seems to be that in Niger people make a lot of ethnic jokes, but it's all in good fun and people don't mind. Except sometimes when they do.

I don't really know anything about the "centuries-old custom" of ethnic jokes in Niger, but it seem to me that the author is taking some liberties when s/he jumps to the pat conclusion that this tradition, "far from exacerbating ethnic tensions, actually has a calming effect on them." I think many Westerners, coming from a cultural context in which people are generally sensitive to such things, are struck by the relative bluntness with which people here comment on ethnicity, color, weight, wealth, religion, etc. But this is a fairly banal observation and I wouldn't draw too many specific conclusions from it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I'm a Very Proud Brother

It's not every day your little sister gets mentioned by name in the New Yorker.

More Obamamania

I thought Kevin Drum made an interesting point in this post:
Obama is frequently outstanding at giving speeches to large crowds. And that's a great skill for a president to have. Unfortunately, very few people, especially outside the early primary states, get to see Obama giving a speech.
So in the interest of encouraging a few more people to watch Obama the Speaker in action, I'm posting a couple more of his recent speeches. This first one was his victory speech in South Carolina last weekend.

And for those of you who appreciate the Camelot nostalgia angle to the Obama campaign, be sure not to miss this (long) video of yesterday's endorsement of Obama by Ted Kennedy.