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Making communities, breaking communities

The online world of the WorldWideWeb is, in some ways, shattering into individual walled gardens hosted and jealously guarded by corporations who shepherd users into the controlling comfort of apps and single sign ons, and recoup their investments via advertising and datamining. The editorial by Doc Searls in the June 2014 edition of Linux Journal crystalized it for me: the Web as we know it is evolving in a way that benefits those corporations, and trade free entertainment for users' data. There are other problems too, like the filter effect of people being enabled to more stringently than ever select what information they want to be exposed to, and technologies like the Google search engine, that strengthen that effect to the detriment of contrary view points. So much for the Internet being a new era of universal enlightenment and sharing.

But this melancholy point of view takes shape while reflecting on what I do on-line, and with whom, and that brings me to the subject of on-line community. Continue reading "Making communities, breaking communities"

The Last Drop of Water

filling water bottle

One day, the taps simply ran dry. No water. The only way to truly what that means is to live through it, to experience it, to suffer through it. Only then do you realize that all the other problems about which you complain are nothing in comparison, that your squatter neighbors live some version of this tragedy every day of their lives, and how precarious human existence truly is on this earth.

We learned later - the hard way, of course - that Senegal’s Presqu’Ile of Dakar depends almost entirely for its water supply from a reservoir just south of the Senegal river, carried through a pressurized conduit to the capital. Precarious, but Manhattan has a similar relationship with the Adirondack Mountains, actually. And a critical Y-fitting in the conduit had been damaged, with no replacement piece available. Suddenly, we were dry. The news got worse before it got better: the repair would take nearly two weeks. Continue reading "The Last Drop of Water"


September 2013: Despite the fringe of dryness in the deciduous trees, Lisbon remains steadfastly in late summer, and by mid-afternoon it's positively hot in the sun, which shines off the tiles of the pracas. Dakar is hot and rainy as we travel, we're told. Continue reading "Lisbon"


September, 2013: Berlin, the city we skipped the last time because it was too long a train trip for the kids. Ericka, whose middle name was chosen by a father who though he admired the place. Diego and Valentina, world travelers and both so blond they fit right in without any German so much as casting a second glance in their direction. So it was as we landed in Shönefeld Airport, the airstrip that previously serviced East Germany.

My German is as poor as it was the last time in Büdingen in 2011, and yet my map-reading and orientation and baby vocabulary get us by in good steed, and so many Germans speak lovely, schooled English anyway that it hardly matters. Still I'm happy to be able to communicate – though poorly and certainly in rudimentary phrases – with our taxi drivers and the like.

We have traveled here with nearly no expectations, and in full understanding we'd forego the provocative museums and sights and thought-pieces, in lieu of afternoons on the swingset with happy kids. Continue reading "Berlin"

Trackball Nirvana

Sometimes, you are just drawn to a technology or a tool, there's no explanation, and there's no going back. That's the way it was with me and trackballs: I'd only had a laptop for a few months when I discovered trackballs, decided it was my cup of tea, bought one, and have been using them exclusively ever since. In that time – almost fifteen years, at this point – I have used a lot of different trackballs. Each one is almost great, but missing one thing. This is the story of my quest for trackball nirvana. Continue reading "Trackball Nirvana"

Democracy matters in Guinea Bissau

polling station, Bissau

Witnessing the electoral process unfold in Guinea Bissau reminded me how important democracy is to those who need it most, and how unappreciated it is by those who have enjoyed it the longest. As if I needed a reminder, I turned out shortly past sunrise to one of several polling stations, where not only were the officials ready to go, but the people had turned out in droves and were waiting patiently and anxiously to vote.

I'd like to say I "protected" democracy, or "defended" it. In fact, I only observed it and somewhat amateurishly, at that. But I was impressed by how seriously everyone took their civic duties, and the vibration of urgency, anxiety, and importance, with which the Bissau Guineans carried out their responsibilities. I remember well another country whose 30% rate of participation bodes poorly for engaged, conscientious population that holds its government accountable.

Ever wonder what democracy looks like? Have a look at this picture. Wondering what it does not look like? Read my Dictator's Handbook.


Bissau on the Geba River

The wheels of our 20-seater aircraft clattered to a halt at the Oviedo airport, and we stepped out into the tropical heat. Guinea Bissau, and I was here because hell, when else would I have a chance? I reel at the absurdity of the situation, and yet Bissau was a wonderful surprise and I returned "home" a few days later charmed indeed.

Maybe it was the tropical greenery, a welcome cry from the sparse sterility of the Sahel: mangos and coconut palms towered above us and the entire city – a village of 400,000, really – was tufted with trees and plant-life. Stains on the concrete alluded to a humid life at riverside; deep concrete ditches along city streets evoked the torrents that would run through them when the rain clouds gathered and the sky blackened in the rainy season. I know those rains well from Nicaragua, and in fact the more I reflected on it, the more Guinea Bissau reminded me of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast: the greenery, the red soils, the lacustrine ambiance, the bright fabrics and dark skin. Continue reading "Bissau"

Cotonou in Six Seconds

I don't often publish things here that aren't my own, but I can't resist linking to this fantastic piece of stop-motion video, showing my old home — Cotonou, Benin — over the course of a day.

Cotonou in Motion (Africa) - Hyperlapse from Mayeul Akpovi on Vimeo.

A gorgeous bit of work by Mayeul Akpovi, whose last name shows he is probably Beninese himself. Awesome to see Africans taking pride in their home! And damned if it doesn't fill me with a strong nostalgia for the place I called home from 2006–2010. Who'd have thought?

2013, the Year of Usenet

Usenet license plate

2013 was the year of Usenet. For me, at least. And here's what I learned.

You might not even remember Usenet. What for my generation was a glimpse of the amazing power of the Internet isn't even known to the new generation of Web 2.0 youngsters: if this article is too long for you, this is the tl;dr conclusion: the Internet is generational, and the new generation isn't better, it's just different. Continue reading "2013, the Year of Usenet"

It's Movember!

It's Movember, folks, the month when we draw attention to prostate and testicular cancer. I'm joining a fundraiser campaign this year, and during the month of November will be raising funds to contribute to the scientific effort to find a remedy.

Interested in participating? Start growing that 'stache, gentlemen. Otherwise, check me out at my Movember Senegal Stache Team page and watch that '70s goodness grow! And kindly kick in a buck or two — our 21-person team is trying to raise a thousand bucks through the power of facial hair. Continue reading "It's Movember!"

How Did We Get Here?

How did we get here? No, really, what is the chain of unfortunate events that leads to a situation like this one?

Well, let's see what we've got: a tractor-trailer mired axle-deep in mud. No, that's not mud, it's human excrement. And it's spun its tires — which were too bald and deteriorated to be worth much anyway — until one of them flew to bits, and now that truck is going absolutely nowhere, and getting it out of that predicament is going to take a couple long hours of pretty nasty work.

How did we get here? Continue reading "How Did We Get Here?"

Market Day in Kolda

They say the marketplace is where the flavor of humanity rises to the surface. Walking through the vendors' stands in Kolda, heaped high with fruits and vegetables, it was easy to believe. Kolda, a commercial center in Senegal's central Casamance region, has long known the power of trade, and its merchants and artisans do business with Africans from throughout Senegal, the Gambia, and Guinea Bissau.

Continue reading "Market Day in Kolda"

San Diego at Fifteen

Marillita, Kenia, Randy in San Diego

In April, 1998, after three intense months of training and cultural learning, I walked up the dusty path from the Condega-Yalí road to meet the Zavala family and begin two years of service teaching agronomy and soil conservation as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The Zavalas would be my family for the next two years, offering me a corner of their home and all their love and support as I lived in their community.

Two years later it was time to leave the Peace Corps and do something else. But I never left the family. And fifteen years — almost to the day — after I first arrived, I returned with Ericka and the children to visit. And I experienced the same whirlwind of emotions as I did in 1998. Continue reading "San Diego at Fifteen"