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The Squatters


Intro: February 2012

Call it a lesson in the obvious, perhaps. I've had the pleasure of living among squatters, and my eyes have been opened to what squatting really means in West Africa. Our neighbors on two sides in Dakar have set up home on vacant, yet-unbuilt lots. They are camps of families and acquaintances making their homes on lots otherwise undeveloped. They organize themselves around sources of water when they are available, keep their sheep, build small cooking fires, socialize ... and then they are gone. Continue reading "The Squatters"

Categories: Econ/Development, Senegal
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The Truly Ergonomic Keyboard (TEK): Review

TEK keyboard

When you've bought your third expensive keyboard it's time to admit you have a fetish. Or that you spend most of your day glued to the business end of a computer. Or both! But face it: if you spend a lot of time writing, a decent keyboard is worth more than its weight in gold, for reasons of efficiency, health, and comfort alone.

I was in the mood for a keyboard built around a linear (not-staggered) layout, and a few reviews of the TEK ("Totally Ergonomic Keyboard") made it seem appealing. So I bought one and have used it for the past couple of weeks. Here are my conclusions, and a few notes of comparison with the Kinesis Ergo keyboard, which I also like and use daily. Continue reading "The Truly Ergonomic Keyboard (TEK): Review"

Categories: Tech
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Movember 2.0

So it's November again – I mean Movember – and as this is potentially my last time participating in the drive to raise awareness and funds for prostate cancer, I plan on going out in style. [No I don't have prostate cancer, just planning on doing something else next year].

So here we go! The rules state that on day one of November, you start clean and then grow a moustache over the course of the year. But that's boring! I played by the rules last year, and it took me all month just to get back to the amount of facial hair I usually sport. What's the fun in that?

This year it's going to be different. Read on! Continue reading "Movember 2.0"

Categories: News
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The Walled City of Carcassonne

Image thanks to

I had been wondering why castles and stories of knights and princesses so thoroughly captivate the kids, and decided it’s probably simply because such an industry has come up around those stories, and there’s so much money to be made. Then we visited Carcassonne and I decided there’s something else.

Neither Ericka nor I is a stranger to castles, having visited many over the past decade. But Carcassonne was captivating in ways that extended beyond the crenelated ramparts. I think it may have been the geography: from the streets of modern Carcassonne you travel outside the city limits, crossing a grassy plain to where the medieval fortress sits perched on a little hillock with a perfect view of the surrounding countryside. Never mind you’re traveling to the city gates in a 2012 Peugeot taxi blasting pop tunes through Bluetooth speakers, as you approach the city gates you’re horseback, wearing heavy leather boots and carrying a weapon of forged iron. And then you are there, on the outside looking in, separated from the inner sanctum of the walled city by a moat (now dry and grassy), and a real, many-ton drawbridge. Carcassonne. Continue reading "The Walled City of Carcassonne"

Categories: France
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Albert and the Mutts: a lesson in poverty reduction

Meet Albert, the best-known street dog in the Almadies neighborhood of Dakar, where we live, and the sire of probably hundreds of Dakarois puppies over the years (he's taking a well-deserved nap in this pic). He's undisputably the king of the neighborhood — even our Basenji warrior leaves him alone. As for the puppies, well his days of fatherhood came to an end, thanks to the intervention of a group of philanthropists and a program of street dog sterilization. But the whole story makes an instructive metaphor.

There's no question something needs to be done about all the underfed, fleabitten, miserable animals living a hairsbreadth from danger in the streets, gasping for shade under parked cars, scrounging through barrels, and generally living badly. And the Dakarois are scared mostly to death of dogs, so they are happy to have fewer of them. So when it comes time to develop and implement a street-dog sterilization campaign, how does it play out? Continue reading "Albert and the Mutts: a lesson in poverty reduction"

Categories: Econ/Development, Senegal
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Backing Up FreeNAS to an external hard drive

I love this little device: it's an iXsystems MiniNAS running FreeNAS 9.2, with tons of disk space, RAM, fast network connections, all on a low-profile device that uses precious little energy (30W). Nice! And having all my important stuff on one box not only gives me the freedom to screw around with my desktops but simplifies and centralizes the work that goes into backing up my information.

It's tempting to be lulled into security by a hefty NAS running the ZFS file system on RAID-6. Yes you've got some redundancy and a resistant file system. But RAID is not backup - a mistake too many make. And here I ran into some trouble. FreeNAS gives you tons of options for transferring zpool datasets around, and since it's networked you can rsync your heart's content to other systems, but what if you just want to back the stuff up to a hard drive locally? Like an external, USB hard drive? Turns out, there's a way, but it requires a bit of Unix-foo.

Fortunately, this is FreeBSD, so lots of things are possible. Continue reading "Backing Up FreeNAS to an external hard drive"

Categories: Tech
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San Juan, Puerto Rico

The best thing about the folks of San Juan, Puerto Rico is their accent: a lot of them sound like me. That is, they've got a New York accent. That changes everything. In fact, Puerto Rico is practically unique across the Caribbean for being an American territory with strong American connections but a culture and history rooted in the Spanish empire as well, and an island that reflects both.

Miguel took us across town in late morning. "Any earlier and the traffic will kill you," he explained. "It's bad and getting worse" We spent a good deal of time waiting to cross intersections anyway, gazing out at architecture that looked kind of like South Florida, but – amazingly – cleaner and better kept. But it was clear the island is struggling, ad we read it in the papers too: to call Puerto Rico's current situation as a 'slump' would be an understatement. That would explain the continued emigration to places like New York, where well over a million Puerto Ricans join the 3 million that stayed behind. "New York's Puerto Rican community is famous," Miguel explained, adding, "Know the other big center of Puerto Rican emigration? Orlando." And then with a smile and a strategic pause, " That's right: Mickey Mouse eats beans and rice" Continue reading "San Juan, Puerto Rico"

Categories: Caribbean Islands
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The Laughing Gulls: Little San Salvador

Laughing Gulls

Turns out, good branding matters, even in geography. Don't believe me? Ask someone currently trying to get by while living in Dildo (Newfoundland and Labrador), Crapo (Maryland), Boogertown (North Carolina), Hellhole (Idaho), or Drain (Oregon). There are others, of course. So it is that the little stretch of sand and sea once known as Little San Salvador has done much better with the relatively more evocative name of Half Moon Cay. That's what I was thinking when I awoke to find our boat rocking gently at anchor off the sandy crescent of Caribbean goodness on which were to spend the rest of the day playing and exploring. Continue reading "The Laughing Gulls: Little San Salvador"

Categories: Caribbean Islands
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Low, White Sand: the Turks and Caicos

I only knew two things about the Turks and Caicos islands before traveling: one, that due to serious concerns about corruption and transparency, the United Kingdom had come close to throwing them out of the British Commonwealth and revoked their right to self government in 2009; and two, that by Caribbean geography alone, it was darned likely I'd find an aquatic paradise of white sand beaches, transparent, turquoise water, and bright sun. On both accounts, I was correct. But I learned a bit more, as well. And mostly, I learned it from Ernest Hemingway. Here, pour yourself a drink before reading on:

Thomas Hudson took a sip of the ice-cold drink that tasted of the fresh green lime juice mixed with the tasteless coconut water that was still so much more full-bodied than any charged water, strong with the real Gordon’s gin that made it alive to his tongue and rewarding to swallow, and all of it tautened by the bitters that gave it color. It tastes as good as a drawing sail feels, he thought. It is a hell of a good drink.
Continue reading "Low, White Sand: the Turks and Caicos"
Categories: Caribbean Islands
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Rainfall in Saint Thomas

Magen's Bay, Saint Thomas

We raised Saint Thomas on the Caribbean horizon before dawn, and by the time the sun was rising, the air was full of bird calls and we were docked in the magnificent harbor of Charlotte Amalie. The Caribbean, the deep Caribbean! And one of the splendid Antilles Islands, to boot! Continue reading "Rainfall in Saint Thomas"

Categories: Caribbean Islands
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Backing up a MySQL database to individual text files

The situation is as follows: you have a MySQL database that backstops your blog, and you'd like to output each database entry as an individual text file. Not as strange an idea as it seems - maybe you'd like to output whatever edits you made to already-published articles, maybe you'd like a bunch of text files you can use as a backup in case your relational database kicks the bucket. Whatever the reason, anyone who's ever written a blog will agree that significant time and effort goes into writing, and the risk of losing all that text is formidable and vaguely hair-raising.

Here is a script I put together that goes through every entry in a blog's database, and outputs the text to a file whose title is created from the data and the name, with dashes, like this:

Continue reading "Backing up a MySQL database to individual text files"
Categories: Tech
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Run sheep, run!

Today is Tabaski, the biggest festival of the year in Senegal. In Arabic it's Eid al-Adha (The Festival of Abraham), and commemorates the moment where, called by God to sacrifice his son Ismael, God sent a ram and Abraham sacrificed it instead of his boy. Muslims sacrifice a ram each year in remembrance.

You can tell Tabaski is coming because you see lots of sheep being transported back and forth: on the roofs of cars, hopefully trussed down under a rice sack, leaving them to admire the countryside, chewing their cud, as they whizz down the highway; also on motorcycles and not infrequently between the legs of the cyclist as he navigates Senegal's crazy traffic. You also start to see sheep tied up to a tree outside the richer households, where it's a not-so-subtle display of wealth and a frequent target of theft. Continue reading "Run sheep, run!"

Categories: Senegal
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In grad school we studied at length the topic of economic convergence, where given freedom of labor movement and transport of materials, wages and economic conditions gradually meet in the middle, like high and low waters finding middle ground as the barrier falls. Agree with that theory or not, head directly to Marseille to have a look at what that might look like.

We visited Marseille in early summer, but already it was sweltering with Mediterranean heat; the air was humid and the sun seared, especially towards evening when its reflection off the harbor was nearly blinding. Hotter still was the metro, which was packed, nearly airless, and absolutely teeming with throngs and throngs of commuters. Suffocating, we curtailed our cross-town trip and made for the exits, where we caught one of the above-ground tramways plying the same route. Continue reading "Marseille"

Categories: France
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The Queleas


The Queleas arrived in mid-summer as the temperature in Dakar ramped up. Uninvited but hugely welcome, they have been an entertaining part of my mornings and evenings until the rains came and chased them away.

Chatty little things, several dozen Queleas began setting up shop in the Casuarina trees in our back yard, twisting and weaving bits of grass and needle into bowl-shaped nests that hung from the branches. They were so intensely chirpy that the neighbors complained, but what was not to like about so much energy and activity outside the windows? And their industry and perspicacity were a welcome respite from life in human West Africa. Continue reading "The Queleas"

Categories: Senegal
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The Sierra Nevada

We’d thought about traveling to Austria or Switzerland in search of snow, but Spanish friends told us there was an easier way. And there was. Senegal is closest to Spain, and just outside of Granada in the south of Spain, lie the Sierra Nevada, whose 3000 foot peaks gathered snow each winter within just a few hundred miles’ distance from the Mediterranean. Too good to be true?

Too good. And too true. We were there in two days’ travel, taking an evening in Madrid to rest up from yet another red-eye flight from Africa over cups of hot chocolate and a plate of warm churros. Arriving in Granada we proceeded southeast and up, on a bus that left Granada’s station several times each morning carrying travelers and their skis. The road narrowed, turning back on itself again and again and fording small streams as the snow gathered at roadside and the pines thinned, and then we were there at the ski camp. Continue reading "The Sierra Nevada"

Categories: Spain
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