I don’t have any illusions about capturing a wide audience or making money on my book (which, fully formatted in ebook form, came out to 271 pages! 😵). This has led me to wonder why I bothered with spending a year and a half writing in the first place – and the truth is, I don’t exactly know. I needed to write it. It was a creative outlet, I guess. A way to stretch and focus this part of my brain that doesn’t get enough exercise in the rest of my life. Like a story I could explore for myself.
FYI: I set up a “Free” promotion on Amazon that will be active for the next couple of days.
It probably won’t be my last creative project. I don’t especially love creative writing. Sometimes I just have to get ideas on a page, you know?
This month marks a decade since I finished my Peace Corps service in Cameroon. I was a health and water sanitation volunteer in the rural South Province there. I learned a lot about public health in low-resource settings, French, a good deal of the local language, Bulu, and broke down and then rebuilt my whole perspective on what “international development” can or should aim to accomplish. I have a lot of thoughts about Cameroon, but the most fascinating one for me today is what’s happening in the first village where I lived, Nyabessan.
Many people have a pretty old-fashioned idea of what Peace Corps service is like. They think Peace Corps volunteers sleep in mud huts in tiny villages and are in constant danger. Almost none of that is true. Most “PCVs,” particularly in Africa, are based in small to medium-sized towns or cities. Most have power and network for cell phones that would be comparable with most parts of America. You can Skype with the vast majority of PCVs today. All live in modern structures and many even have indoor plumbing. As for the danger part, well, that’s mostly a product of dumb American fears of the developing world. Most people are at far higher risk of personal injury on an American college campus than in an African village.
That all said, Nyabessan, my first posting, was instead a more “classic” Peace Corps experience. It was a small village of less than 100 people in the middle of a giant rainforest along the Ntem River. It was six-to-eight hours, frequently on a motorcycle, on hardly more than a mud track before you got to paved road, and then two hours to electricity/phones/internet/mail. It was very isolated and very poor. I lived there for about a year before getting moved to Ambam, a much larger (but still small) town elsewhere in the province.
About two/three hours’ hike from Nyabessan are the Memve’ele waterfalls. Here’s a picture:
They were pretty extraordinary, but also very remote. I visited a couple of times, but didn’t think too much about it. You have to understand, pretty much no one lived anywhere close. Nyabessan was the closest village, and around us were thousands of square miles of utter wilderness.
Around the time I was there, Cameroon was in talks with the China Import/Export bank for a big infrastructure “loan” to build a hydroelectric power station there. Well, those went well. China eventually “loaned” Cameroon 243 billion CFA (about the equivalent of $420M) to construct the project. Here’s what it looks like now:
I can’t stress enough how insane this is. None of what you see in this picture was even conceivable ten years ago. (Btw, I think we were standing in the upper-righthand bend in the river in the first photo.) They had to level and pave the road all the way there, import materials and people (mostly Chinese laborers, by the way) and pay off god only knows how many. The actual work was mostly done in the last few years, and the dam is partially operational today. There’s a good article about it in a recent Afrik Actuelle.
Sure, it’ll be an environmental disaster in a lot of ways, but the Memve’ele Dam also represents tangible progress in living standards in Cameroon. It represents power generation, infrastructure, jobs and opportunity for millions, and it was made possible through deliberate Chinese diplomatic and economic strategy. Most of that “loan” above will eventually be written off when China needs something.
I wish America was capable of strategy like this in the 21st century. But for Cameroon’s sake, I’m at least glad China is. On est ensembles.
Late last night, I wrote a final few paragraphs, put my computer on the coffee table, stood up and stretched. I got a piece of banana bread and looked out our window onto the Upper East Side. I’d just finished a project that I’ve been working on for a year and a half, and it was a weird feeling. Good. Great, even. But… strange.
Two years ago, I went backpacking in Zion National Park with one of my closest friends. Brian and I did the entire cross-Zion trek, from west to east sides. It was amazing/brutal. Along the way, I was inspired with an idea for a fictional narrative that I just couldn’t shake. It rattled around my brain for six months afterwards until I finally outlined what that story might look like. And then… I went and wrote some of it.
I wrote it in fits and starts for a long time – finishing pieces and then laying it aside for a while. Earlier this year, though, I committed to getting it done. Perhaps not “finished,” insofar as a piece of creative writing ever is; and perhaps not written extremely well. But written. Out of my head and onto a page. And last night, I finished the last installment to my first-draft satisfaction.
UPDATE 7/22: I’ve written a fuller description of the project here.
A little over a decade ago, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) idea was hoisted out of obscurity by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab at – where else? – the WEF in Davos. He got a bunch of big, mostly techie corporations to commit to backing it, and later, at another Davos summit, the UNDP. The idea was basically this: schoolchildren in the developing world needed computer literacy to compete, yet computers (notably then) were expensive. So a non-profit effort needed to develop a basic computer that would cost <$100. This would enable massive distribution and give children in poor countries access to computers.
The program has been mired in controversy for the last decade. It’s still something of a cause célèbre in some techie do-gooder circles, while development experts have generally reserved deep skepticism. Sure enough, the American Economic Association just published a new, large-scale, randomized evaluation of the OLPC program in Peru, where it found “no evidence” that the devices contributed to math or language skills improvement.
Before I got into tech, I worked in international development, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon and then as a program manager for a U.S.-based development contractor implementing a bunch of USAID projects. (I’ll write about that sometime.) In 2008, I got to play with one of the “OLPCs,” as they were called. It was cute, but manifestly not a “computer.” Ironically, I had just gotten my first iPhone at that time. Like many people, I’d started to suspected that was the future of computing for most of the world; now, we know it is.
I have started writing, abandoned and then revisited a big formal Medium post on tech silver-bullet-ism many times. (I had one that was popular earlier on why Google’s balloons and Facebook’s drones are bad ideas.) It’s incredibly frustrating. Every year, millions are spent on dumb, gadget-y projects that some white person sitting in America (or Europe), who either spent a cursory amount of time in the developing world or sometimes none at all, imagines will revolutionize life there. The OLPC is just one such example. PlayPumps was another famous one. It’s an incredibly myopic, and predictably ineffectual, view on structural, contextual problems like poverty, education and healthcare. But it makes for great PR. So the reason it keeps happening should tell you why many people/companies invest in it.
OLPC’s goal was to improve education in the developing world. The best way to do that, as almost any expert on the topic agrees, is not by building a school (every “mission trip’s” favorite pastime) or handing out gadgets. Rather, it’s systemic: you start by paying teachers. (No, that doesn’t always happen.) Pay them enough, and on time, regularly. Give them respect and don’t place them in a corrupt administrative system. Provide sufficient resources for children to learn. In many contexts, comparatively small investments in providing meals and healthcare at school works wonders.
Just imagine what could’ve happened if Negroponte had pitched those ideas at Davos?
Buddy of mine and I saw these guys in person. Sissoko is a renowned Malian kora musician, and Segal an accomplished French cellist. Unreal how good they are together. This is one of my go-tos now for background music when I put my headphones on. (They’re on Spotify too.)
One built-in limitation to human psychology is our hardwired inability to imagine new things in the future. Risk aversion is probably an evolutionary advantage, so this makes sense. Offered an uncertain choice, most people’s imaginations immediately leap to what could go wrong, what they could stand to lose, etc. After all, the positive future is defined by things that don’t even exist yet, while the negative future is defined by the lack of that which I already have here in front of me.
There are any number of examples of this. Doomsday predictions – financial, political, environmental, social, etc. – are reliably popular, while more optimistic ones are trashed. You observe this all the time. Pessimistic predictions are frequently given weighty consideration, and the predictors gain a penumbra of wise skepticism; while optimistic ones are dismissed as unrealistic, pollyannaish whimsy. So grounds for optimism are often ignored. Who, in 1990, predicted that global poverty would be cut by more than half in 25 years? How many predicted that the iPhone would be such a transformational product? You can find tons of examples of the same.
Recognizing this limitation of human psychology and correcting for it can be a huge “hack.” It gives you a greater sense of control over your own life and can make you a lot happier.
Nevertheless, I think about this a lot when hearing people complain that, to become more successful, this political party or that one needs to invent a new “positive message for the future.” Do people really believe in, let alone vote for, optimism? I’m not so sure. I think people vote for personalities and brands and the feelings they represent (and, often, which people project onto them). “Make America Great Again” resonated with a lot of people because it appealed to nostalgia, however misplaced; Trump also ran against a historically weak opponent, plus Russia, etc etc.¹ But the Trump campaign was also markedly negative in its outlook on America. Obama in 2008, Clinton in 1992 or Reagan in 1980 are often referred to as campaigns of “optimism,” but each, gifted and charismatic communicators all, also ran against weak opponents who misread the electorate. No one remembers all the block-and-tackling of those campaigns – just the warm and fuzzies of “Morning in America” and “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” “Optimistic” is simply what we wind up calling most campaigns that win.
So I guess this is to say that I don’t believe all the hand-wringing about how Democrats need to invent some new, positive spin to win back [insert your pet constituency here]. Likeable, charismatic candidates, smart comms strategy, campaign organizing fundamentals, media and tech savvy and electorate trends are where victory lies, no matter your party.
¹ – This isn’t a partisan post per se, but it’s worth noting that Trump lost the popular vote by a convincing margin, so his “win” here is meant in the technical sense. Clinton’s campaign was not a fundamentally “optimistic” one either, though.
I’m a southerner and thus am addicted to sweet tea. (This means iced tea, obviously.) During the hot months, I brew my own at home in 1.5 gallon jugs. I probably go ~2 jugs a week.
“Real” sweet tea is made with sugar, but I use Sweet ‘N Low – saccharin. I buy it in bulk packs. When I tell people about this, some recoil – surely that can’t be good for you, right? Doesn’t saccharin cause cancer?
Saccharin does not cause cancer. Those tiny warnings everyone remembers – “this product has been shown to cause cancer in rats,” etc. – has been gone since 2000, since the FDA and the EPA reviewed those studies, which dated from the early ’70s, and concluded they were mostly bad science. But earlier controversies over artificial sweeteners, combined with modern-day paranoia about additives, have conspired to probably permanently stigmatize saccharin. Natural sugar (refined or not) is much worse for you on almost every level: it rots your teeth, fries your nervous system, is full of calories and more. None of that is true for saccharin. But the “cancer” smear has sort of set.
People’s food beliefs are strongly linked to their disgust reflexes, which are set early in life and extremely difficult to change thereafter, and are rarely rational. We Americans have our own culturally constructed mythology about what makes food “clean.” You can get a piece of six-month old, hormone-fed, antibiotic-bathed piece of chicken breast fried in day-old peanut oil, but as long as it is wrapped in shiny foil and never touched by an ungloved human hand, it is considered “clean.” Meanwhile, many European consumers find the notion of a genetically modified ear of corn, picked fresh from the farm, utterly, viscerally revolting. A lot of Africans I know relish a nice stick of boiled manioc wrapped in banana leaf, but are a little repulsed by the level of sweetness in a lot of American foods.
Once you start realizing how utterly arbitrary our food mythologies are, your world of food sort of opens up, but also collapses around you at the same time.
The next time you have an idea, but then think “surely no one would possibly buy that,” remember that Gwyneth Paltrow is selling packs of stickers – yes, stickers – that she says “promote healing” for $60 a pop for packs of 10. Everyone’s favorite homeopathic shuckster invokes science to claim that her $6/a sticker scam is based on tech:
Last I looked, their inventory was sold out. People buy this stuff. Whether you see that as exploiting easily-mislead simpletons or cashing in on homeopathic faddism is up to you. But it means that your idea probably isn’t stupid, either.
I nurse a moderate coffee addiction and a sweet tooth. Possibly as a result, over time I have a very low sensitivity to stimulants. This has both good and bad effects, but isn’t my point today.
Imagine you’re a striving young European intellectual in the mid 17th century. A lot is going on in Europe at this time – it would’ve been an exciting (albeit dangerous) time to be young and doing stuff. People you know start drinking this weird beverage called “coffee” which acts like lighter fluid on your brain. It was immediately associated with the intelligentsia and revolutionary troublemaking, which is why kings began outlawing it from their realms. (They tried for over a century – King Charles II in 1676 to Frederick the Great in 1777.) Many rulers wanted their people to go back to drinking beer instead, for obvious reasons.
The introduction of coffee gave its consumers an unfair competitive advantage over non-coffee drinkers, particularly those doing the knowledge work of the time. Caffeine is a psychotropic drug, after all. I wonder if it was received something like adderall is today among the wealthy, plugged-in urban set. I know lots of people (almost all white and from money) who went through college/grad school popping adderall to study and pull all-nighters. (Needless to say, none of them were ever the least bit worried about being caught/punished. Privilege at work.) That said, there’s still some lingering stigma around popping pharmaceuticals like this.
Of course, adderall ain’t caffeine. Different degrees of effect. But it does make me think about how performance enhancing drugs – and they’re all just drugs! – are culturally normalized over time.
Lastly – do you know about chewable coffee? I discovered this stuff a few months ago and love it now. Basically it’s gummy coffee-flavored cubes that pack caffeine. Recommend: GoCubes