Disaster injustice

I just read two posts from BoingBoing that I couldn't help but sharing:
Economics of disaster

The poorest 20% (you can argue with the number -- 10%? 18%? no one knows) of the city was left behind to drown. This was the plan. Forget the sanctimonious bullshit about the bullheaded people who wouldn't leave. The evacuation plan was strictly laissez-faire. It depended on privately owned vehicles, and on having ready cash to fund an evacuation. The planners knew full well that the poor, who in new orleans are overwhelmingly black, wouldn't be able to get out. The resources -- meaning, the political will -- weren't there to get them out.

White per capita income in Orleans parish, 2000 census: $31,971. Black per capita: $11,332. Median *household* income in B.W. Cooper (Calliope) Housing Projects, 2000: $13,263.

Black people loot, white people find?


The images were shot by different photographers, and captioned by different photo wire services. The Associated Press caption accompanying the image with a black person says he's just finished "looting" a grocery store. The AFP/Getty Images caption describes lighter skinned people "finding" bread and soda from a grocery store. No stores are open to sell these goods.

Fire those firefighters...or pay them

While we were in Zomba this past weekend there were lots of fires burning. Fires are common in Malawi, because people often burn the fields during the dry season. One person told me this was to help catch
rats for eating (rats on a stick are for sale everywhere here), but it is also probably the easiest way to prepare the fields for farming in the rainy season.

In Zomba, however, there are no fields, just miles and miles of dense mountain pine forest. In the western United States, burning pine forest is cause for parachuting firefighters, chemical retardant dumped from a helicopter, and mass evacuations. In Zomba, it was apparently a different story. Driving up the windy roads, the fires would often be burning on the shoulder, but you just drive through the thick smoke only
to be hailed down be an excited Malawian a hundred meters later. Excited
about the fire? No, he just wants to sell you bucketfuls of strawberries.
This is a common theme from my life in Malawi. Things that would be utterly frightening, exciting, newsworthy, panic-inducing, etc, any where else are just part of the ho-hum here.
We asked Donald, our lodge host about the fires and like many things here, the story was complicated, fascinating and sad. Apparently the forestry department/firefighters in Zomba haven't been paid in 5 years, despite many promises from the government. So last year the firefighters
started burning down the forest in protest.

Last Thursday, Donald had to evacuate his guests (not until after a great dinner of course) because the 50 foot flames were a couple hundred
meters away. He and his staff spent the whole night stomping out burning
ash that was landing all around the lodge. Donald feels bad for these unpaid firefighters, but they almost burned his lodge down - and they certainly burned up a lot of the forest that his guests come to enjoy. It is so strange. We hear about how bad it is to buy charcoal, and burn wood here, because there isn't much forest left, but then you see a mess
like the fires in Zomba.


This past weekend we went away to the Zomba Plateau, which is a beautiful mountainous part of Malawi. We did a lot of hiking and really enjoyed ourselves, despite being a bit tired after all of the walking and the 4 hour drive required each way. Just when you are climbing through the steepest section and starting to feel really tired, you see one of the millions of daily Malawian superheros:


The first night we stayed at Ku Chawe, which is a Le Meridien hotel, and boasts one of the best views in Africa. We were less than impressed, particularly when I asked reception about where we could go walking/hiking and she offered to drive me to a local fish farm. That was the breaking point, but the call from reception at 5:45am, the construction, and the expensive and mediocre food didn't help either. So we left and found the cozy Zomba Forest Lodge, with has no electricity, but plenty of excellent food, great advice, and the type of laid back atmosphere we needed for our mini-break. Donald, the host, was a wealth of friendly and fascinating information. If you are going to Zomba, I would recommend staying at the Zomba Forest Lodge (z.f.lodge@mw.celtelplus.com)
and then hike up to Ku Chawe - you'll appreciate the views more after a hike anyways. Maybe the food will taste better too.

Christians for Pastafarians

Have you heard about the Flying Spaghetti Monster? People are touting it as a new religion. Basically Pastifarians believe that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world. Their oldest scripture is simply this:


A good Pastafarian will always wear pirate regalia and end their prayers by saying "Ramen". Read more about it on the Wikipedia page.

I think it is hilarious and creative stuff - but the point of it all is to mock the hard core, right wing Christian fundamentalists, who continue to try and keep the theory of evolution from being taught in schools. These conservative American Christians continue to drive me absolutely crazy. Personally, I think Genesis is more of a parable describing who created the world, rather than how it was created. But even if Genesis is a play by play of how it all began, evolution is happening, science and the rest of the world have benefitted greatly by understanding it, and most importantly there are more important things for Christians to be acting upon. I actually think teaching Pastafarianism in school would be a great classroom exercise. It would force students to do some critical thinking about their own belief systems - and learning how to think is the most important part of any education and indeed any religion.


His noodly appendage is a really fun reminder to me about the mysteries of this amazing universe, and the wonderful creativity of human beings. And who knows, maybe there will be a beer volcano in heaven?

Tips for life on a slow and expensive internet connection

So until I get my VSAT working I am stuck with dialup. I thought I would share a couple of the things I do to maintain an online life, without always having to be online.

Browsing the web is done in firehose mode. I connect to the internet, and then proceed to open tons of tabs (you do use Firefox, right?) full of pages that I need to read - but I don't read them until I am offline. Things like news, and essential blogs, all get loaded into various tabs that will be read later. I use Bloglines to read blogs - and I often open multiple pages to bloglines so that I can download various feeds at once. Reading blogs via RSS feeds is definitely a great way to be able to follow what is happening online without being online much yourself.

Email needs to be checked and sent regularly to assume any kind of online presence. Thunderbird helps out quite a bit by offering fairly decent offline support. So the first thing is obvious - read and write your email offline, then jump online only to send and receive. I receive and store all of my email on a server in London and then access it with IMAP. IMAP is great, even for offline use, but the one problem is it doesn't allow you to use compression. This is too bad because email is mostly text which compresses rather nicely. Zipping a text file often causes it to compress by more than 50%. So using compression could halve the time it takes to download email. How to do this? The solution is a bit complex, but I think the benefits are worth it. Ssh creates secure connections between two machines and also allows you to compress the data before it is sent over the network. Not only that, but ssh allows you to do port forwarding, essentially making ports on one computer appear as local ports on another computer. Here is the command I run whenever I go online:
ssh -N -f -C -L 143:vdomck.org:143 -l crazy vdomck.org
this makes a secure, compressed connection to London and my computer's port 143 actually forwarded to my server's (vdomck.org) port 143. Then in Thunderbird, instead of telling it that my email server is vdomck.org, I just tell it to look at the localhost. Voila, now any data sent or received with my IMAP server is done over a secure, compressed IMAP connection. Don't have ssh? Try putty or cygwin.

Skype is so killer (perhaps it will be killed by Google talk?), but until I have always on access, phone cards are a cheap way to do the voice thing. There are thousands of different plans available. Just google for one, and you can get a $5 card that will allow you to talk to Africa for hours. Skyping is too expensive for me, so instead I just email a phone card when I need to talk to someone instead.

As for blogging. Just figure out how to post to your blog via email - then you can do all of your writing offline and have it go out with your emails. Blogger makes it easy. I use the postie plugin for Wordpress. In fact, that is what I am doing right now. :-)

Rsync is another useful way to squeeze bandwidth and time online - see another one of my blog posts for more info.

VSAT Update

I have been putting this one off, waiting for that exciting moment when I will post via my own working VSAT connection. Unfortunately this has not yet happened. Sadly, but not surprisingly I have been hitting quite a few hurdles. The problem boils down to the fact that I can't make my VSAT antenna lock onto a signal - and I have no idea why.

So allow me to introduce the players.


First off is the dish. Grant Smith, a friend of mine, is letting me borrow a 1.2m Patriot dish that his company uses for a moderately expensive VSAT solution. The dish is was damaged on route from South Africa, but the dents are pretty small. I don't think they are significant enough to mess up my signal - but I am not certain. Notice that the dish includes a reflector and a nosecone.

RFU In Pieces.jpg

The next player is the LNB/RFU. I am not sure what these acronymns stand for, not which parts each acronym refers to - but I have been thinking of the sum total as the antenna lately. This is the hardware that captures the radio signal as wel as sends it. This equipment was sent to me by Jeff, and Grant figured out how to mount onto the dish.


Finally we have the modem. The modem is a DirecWay6000, or DW6000 as it is often referred to. This was also sent by Jeff. It connects to the antenna via two coax cables - one for sending and one for receiving. It sets itself up as a DHCP server on and you can telnet into it on port 1953. Setting it up requires a bunch of parameters which have been supplied to my via SatDSL, a company in Czech who will eventually be my ISP if I can ever get this thing working. You also put in your Latitude and Longitude, then the DW6000 tells you which direction to orient your dish, what angle to set it at, as well as a polarization number which requires you to rotate the antenna.

At this point it is just a matter of actually doing the pointing and then trying to maximize the Signal Quality Factor (SQF). And here is where I have been utterly stuck for weeks now. No matter what I do, the SQF is always stuck at 29. No matter where I point the dish it always says 29. The only way I can get the number to change is by unplugging the coax from the antenna, at which point my SQF hovers between 6 and 10. Every day for at least two weeks I would have a new idea, or receive a suggestion from Czech or Grant and I would hook up the whole setup, make my tweak to the hardware or software, then take my laptop outside only to find that I am still stuck at 29. 29! 29 is the bane of my existence.

So what does 29 mean? Well, thanks to Petr Neuman at SatDSL, who has been helping me by sending documentation and patiently answering my questions, it seems that 30 is the magic "locked on" number. Once you reach 30 then you have locked onto a signal and it is just a matter of fine tuning to increase that signal. 29 seems to mean that I am getting signals, but the wrong ones. And since I can point the dish anywhere and still get 29, there seem to be plenty of wrong signals about. And that is pretty much my understanding of unlucky 29.

Last week, Petr sent me an interesting document which has unearthed a new possible problem. Basically there is a piece on the antenna called a waveguide. The waveguide determines whether the hardware is configured to be a vertical receiver and horizontal transmitter or vice versa. The satellite over the US (W1 is its name) uses one configuration, and the satellite over Africa uses the other. Switching configurations requires switching waveguides from the X version to the I version. Here are the two waveguides - I have the one on the left but need the one on the right.


I have also tried running it without the waveguide, as the resulting holes match up into a configuration similar to what happens with the "I" waveguide - but you guessed it - SQF 29.

So I am totally stuck. I am considering trying to machine a new waveguide. Grant offered to let me try an undented dish. SatDSL has offered working hardware at a good price, but it is in Czech and includes a 1.2m dish. Still if I could find a cheap ticket to Europe I could go and pick it up.

I have also asked for help here, but no one has responded despite it being a very active forum. What I need is a Hughes engineer (Hughes makes all of the equipment including the satellite 26,000 miles up) - surely one of you, my millions of readers, is a Hughes Engineer? Or maybe your uncle is, or neighbor. Malawi needs help!

The Department of Road Traffic

Many people equate hell with places like the DMV (Department of Motor
Vehicles for my non-American readers). You know a place where time is
eternal, everybody thoroughly unhappy, and the staff are rude. Now, how
might you imagine the DMV in Africa? Seriously, think about it before
reading on.

Well first off the DMV in Malawi has a different name - everybody calls
it "Road Traffic". Not hard to spot the negative connotation. It is two
buildings inside a walled compound, with a sort of mechanic's pit
separating the two buildings. People are everywhere, most of whom are
trying to sell car accessories, shoes, and cell phone covers. Walking
into the inquiries office you might see a long queue of people and one
person working - the other 5 employees are buying children's clothes
through the window, eating their lunch or just staring off into space.
From the inquiries room you will be redirected somewhere else, even if
it is just back to the inquiries room. Perhaps you will be directed to
the other building, which means crossing over the testing zone. Every
few minutes an officially dressed person gets into a different car slams
on the gas then hits the brakes skidding through the dirt. Survival of
the test zone will get you into a new room where the employees are
either eating, sleeping, or negotiating a fair price for Nigerian
romance novels. After telling you that your papers are wrong, and you
telling them that they are right, you will be told to return in the
afternoon. Returning in the afternoon will result in apologies and a
promise to type your form into the computer right away. If you were to
watch the data entry process from the window near the mechanic's pit you
would see two people chatting away, one of whom uses a solitary finger
every 5 seconds or so to enter your data. You would decide to leave and
come back. Coming back later you would hear the word "mzungu" (white
person) a lot and then be asked to wait. While waiting you might get a
call from a friend telling you that the South African police are in town
randomly stopping cars and checking to see if they are stolen, as
apparently many cars here are. This might make you nervous. Eventually
the employee would meet you outside near the pit and ask for 5000
kwacha. You would give it, even if you are not sure this is the proper
procedure, and she would disappear returning soon with a registration
printout. You would sigh with relief and drive home hoping to avoid the
South African roadblock.

Some useful software tools

I just came across two interesting tools worthy of my hipster audience,
so here you go.

FolderSize does something that should have been part of windows from the
start. Have you ever wondered how large a folder is, and then been
annoyed with the right click, properties, then wait while windows
calculates the total size routine? FolderSize fixes this problem by
adding a Folder Size column to the details view of your explorer window.
And because the author thought outside of the box it is fast. I just
installed it today, so I don't have months of use to validate it with,
but so far it just works.

The second tool I am not so sure about. But before I tell you about it,
let me tell you about rsync a tool I am completely sure about. Rsync is
an open source command line tool for synchronizing and copying files. It
sounds boring, but it is actually pretty cool. If you are updating a
file between two computers, it uses some really clever algorithms to
only copy the distances over. This can make a big difference when you
are transferring big files, like a zip file containing many files, where
only a few lines were changed inside one of the zipped files. Even if it
is 100MB in size, rsync will update the old one with lightning
quickness. When you are stuck behind a dialup connection in Africa,
tools like this are critical. This morning I transferred 47MB worth of
code (thanks FolderSize), images and text to a server in London in less
than a minute or two thanks to rsync (and the fact that most of the code
was already there and hadn't changed). Rsync is great but its virtues
are yet to be realized by most users - mostly because people just
haven't heard of it and secondly it is command line based and that
scares people off. Last week I set up rsync to do nightly
synchronizations of about 30GB worth of data for OIBM. This has enabled
a mirroring of account data at each of the branches - saving tons of
daily bandwidth in a place where bandwidth is scarce, if there is any to
be had at all. Setting it up meant, cygwin, cron, ssh and rsync.
Essential parts of any sysadmin's toolkit in my opinion - but not
exactly part of the Microsoft Certified Blah Blah Course. This

is a nice guide to getting rsync going on windows.

The second tool is called SyncToy
and I haven't even downloaded it. On the surface it seems to be like
rsync but with a GUI. Perhaps that is all that it is - and if so then I
that is great. I'm a sucker for efficiency. I am not sure if it can
synchronize individual files by transferring just the changes - but it
certainly can do directories, and it sounds like quite a bit else too.
Try it out - and let me know what you think. I am particularly
interested to hear how it compares with rsync. Perhaps it is something
that I can recommend to sysadmins who are afraid to use their friendly
command line.

Blogs about Malawi

I keep a close eye on the blogosphere for anything about Lilongwe or Malawi (thanks to Technorati's Malawi Tag) and there usually isn't much, but every once in a while I find something pretty cool. Yesterday I discovered The Roving Frog a blog by an Australian woman who just moved to Lilongwe a number of weeks ago. Her blogs about life in Malawi definitely hit home.

My favorite blog in Malawi belongs to Katie Greenwood and her
What one does with a Geography Major blog. It is some really excellent writing full of insight, honest stories and a tough look at the injustice faced by Malawians on a daily basis.

Happy reading!

Hunger hits George's family

We provide all of our staff about $35 per year to travel back to their villages, and George our gardener has asked for $10 of this money to send home to his family in lieu of going himself. At first I told him no - the money is not just a pot of money to use for whatever - it is specifically set aside so that George can go home and be with his family. Further investigation revealed that George didn't want to go home because his family would expect him to bring so much from the city that he just couldn't afford the trip - even with the whole $35. So in the end we decided it was fine for George to just send money via his brother who is going back this weekend.

I just gave the money to George a few minutes ago and I asked him some more about his village. I have been asking him regularly how his family in the village is and whether or not they have enough food - because their have been warnings for months now. He had always assured me that they were okay - they are smart and grow cassava along with their maize, which is much heartier and more reliable than maize. But this morning it was a different story. This past weekend George met a relative who was visiting from his village and the relative told him many stories about hunger in his village. The people from his village have started going to Mozambique looking for food (refugees from hunger?) - apparently their is a bit more food in Mozambique so the prices are lower, but it is expensive to transport it back. George said that is what he expects his $10 to be used for. He said there are also people that are spending their days in the forest looking for edible roots - he laughed an embarrassed sort of laugh when he said this. Scrounging in the forest is apparently not something that proud farmers do. He told me that his own family is in trouble now too - their cassava didn't grow properly this year.

I asked George if he had ever been in the village when something like this was happening. "Yes, in 1999", he told me. I asked him if he had to spend days without eating, but he told me that he was in school at the time and the government was providing food for all of the students. Even his parents were okay, because the cassava had done okay in the drought. But apparently people around him were not so lucky.

Today, right now, millions of people within a day's, even an hour's drive in any direction are hungry towards starvation.

Bad news from Malawi

Everyone has been expecting this, but still this is a very sad and scary bit of reality.

UN warns of Malawi food crisis

LILONGWE - Malawi is facing its worst food crisis in over 10 years, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said today.

This was caused by drought, floods, consecutive poor harvests, endemic poverty and the effects of HIV/AIDS.

More than 4,2 million people, or over 34% of the population, were unable to meet their food needs and maize production was the lowest in a decade.

"Early and above average rains had raised hopes for a good crop, but the rains failed during the critical period from late January to the end of February when the maize crop was pollinating and forming cobs," said Tesfai Ghermazien, FAO emergency coordinator in Malawi.

Exceptionally heavy rains in December and early January caused flooding and crop losses, especially in the southern and central parts of the country.

"We need urgent assistance from the donor community to prevent a further escalation of the crisis and to avert widespread hunger and malnutrition, especially among children under the age of five," Ghermazien said.

Interventions needed include food aid, agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilisers, and assistance with crop diversification.


Ethiopia and the internet

According to this article Ethiopia believes in the leapfrog dream.

Ethiopia's IT programme is an extreme example of the aspiration of several African countries to leap out of their quagmire of decaying public services with the help of IT. The dream is to skip an entire generation of infrastructure by going directly to internet technology.

My dream is to bring bandwidth to Malawi especially its villages. By sellingVOIP and relying heavily on Open Source innovations and communities as well as used equipment from Ebay to keep prices low, I am hoping to develop market driven approaches - not just the government gravy trains that are far too common in Africa.