Hiya George!

I have just returned from safari and promise to make this next week an absolute blog-fest. But I couldn't wait to share my favorite photo from the trip.

"You know, lots of people with big ears are famous! "

-Timothy Q. Mouse in Dumbo

Blood on our hands

If you have been watching this space, you have seen my buildup to the famine that is happening in Malawi. First there was an article warning of what is to come, then it George told me about his family's village and how they are scrounging for roots in the forest to eat. Now 29 orphans have died because they didn't have any food. This is happening close to my house, and I feel guilty about it. I wonder how the rest of the world feels?

Perl scripts for perl-less people

Today I needed to hack to together a quick perl script that was to run on another person's computer. It would have been total overkill to install cygwin and perl on his machine just to run a 10 line script. So instead I googled and determined that I could compile my script using a program included with perl called perlcc. I was doubtful that it would work under windows, but I decided to try anyways. It worked! So here is a quick how to compile perl under windows using cygwin and perlcc.

First off run perlcc --help. My script was simple with no extra modules, but yours might be more complex - the help screen will pick up where this simple howto fails.

In the same directory as your perl file run:
perlcc -o foo.exe foo.pl

Then open the folder in windows explorer and double click on foo.exe. It will probably complain about a missing dll (cywin1.dll will probably be the first one). Copy cygwin1.dll from /bin (C:\cygwin\bin) to the folder. Run it again and it will complain about a perl dll. Copy the perl dll (again from /bin) to the same folder. Repeat the process until you have all of the dlls it wants and your script runs in a DOS window. Now you should be able to send this folder to anyone and they can run foo.exe from it. Even after all these years perl still gives me the warm fuzzies.

I made 12 bucks!

So you may notice the google ads on the right. What caused me to lower myself to marketing?

A few months ago I created Kumbali.com for a lodge here in Lilongwe. They were disappointed that their shiny new website didn't turn up as the number one hit on google when someone typed in Malawi. They wanted me make their site appear first on google. I explained that google's rankings are very difficult to artificially manipulate, and that is why they are so successful - you can trust a google search. I told them they could pay to get listed on the advertising part of a google page, and they gave me the green light. I was very surprised at how easy this was. I said that I wanted to spend no more than $1 a day, and that our ad should display when people search for Malawi, Lilongwe, Lilongwe Hotels, and the like. Within a few minutes their ad was appearing, and three months later they are approaching 1000 hits from google ads - and getting quite a few bookings through the website. In other words, like the rest of google, it just worked.

So I decided I would add a google ad to Hacktivate. Again it was very simple, and I could make it look like the rest of my site. Today I checked, and for September I made almost $15! Apparently real people read my blog and they click on my ads and make me real money. Maybe I have been in Malawi too long, but $15 is the monthly salary for a lot of people here, and I feel like Google just gave me this for free. But it is not free, and that is the point. Something on my blog attracted a reader who was then attracted to another site via an ad, and that site was happy enough to pay me (and google) for getting the clicker there. It is a fine example of good marketing.

At its worst marketing is a blatant attempt to skew otherwise free markets towards inferior products. There are too many examples of this. But at its best, marketing makes connections from people to products that would otherwise be impossible because the market is too large or not really free. I think google is the latter and I am happy to be participating.

Mobile phones and a modern economy for Malawi

Malawi's largest piece of currency is the 500 kwacha note. The 500 kwacha note is worth just about $4. Nobody here takes credit cards and paying by check is neither common nor easy. Practically this means that you have to carry around really fat wads of cash, and make frequent visits to the bank.

This sort of economy has huge implications for how business is done. A lot of time is wasted counting bills and moving money. More importantly cash makes for easy corruption. For example, you are asked to purchase some paper for your office. You buy the paper for 500 kwacha, but you give the cashier an extra 20 kwacha and ask her to make the receipt for 1000. Reimbursal therefore makes for an easy 480 kwacha payoff. This sort of thing is far too common.

This week I received the following text message on my phone:

With TNM you can now recharge your friends mobile using TNM direct top up service. Just use the following command: *112*phone number*recharge pin*. Its that easy

What does this have to do with the cash economy in Malawi? Well, I think the developing world is going to leapfrog over the world of credit cards and checkbooks that the developed economies rely on and go straight to payment for everything via mobile phone and I think the above announcement is the first step.

Mobile phones are already must-have devices in Malawi. I think it is fair to say that just about everybody making at least $200/month and living in one of the cities with mobile phone coverage will have a mobile phone. Often people making much less money will have one as well. Instead of receiving a bill at the end of every month, most people here are on a pay as you go scheme. You simply buy a plastic card on the side of the road for a couple hundred kwacha, scratch off the code and enter it into the phone for a dozen minutes of talk time.

But now, I can buy one of these cards and send the credit to anyone with a phone anywhere in the country. Behold electronic currency. Well almost. This system has already hurdled over the most difficult parts of building an electronic currency - the hardware is distributed on a grand scale (phones everywhere), it is backed by something with value (time on the phone) and the system to transfer and account for transactions is in place and working. The limitation is that a unit can only be transferred once and then used only by that recipient. It is the difference between receiving a twenty dollar gift certificate for one store (which only sells one thing) and receiving a twenty dollar bill from grandma. The value is reduced because you can't use it where you like nor transfer it to someone else.

There is just one more step required to make Malawi's electronic currency system the envy of the world, and it is actually quite simple. Allow the unlimited transfer of units from one phone to another. The current system only allows units to transfer from a card to someone else's phone, effectively limiting a unit to one transfer and then it is frozen. Once this restriction is removed a vendor could buy and sell units for cash taking a profit on each transaction. This would make the currency cash convertible and infinitely more useful. Really large conversions from units to cash might be done through the mobile company itself as vendors might not want thousands of dollars of units. Either way, each new unit purchase is profit for the mobile company, and subsequent conversions profit for the vendors. The profits will be paid for by the people transferring units - which they will happily pay because carrying electronic currency is safer than carrying wads of cash.

I am not sure when it is going to happen, but I am confident it will, and there will be no turning back. Perhaps a leapfrog like this will be the kind that can bring Africa up to par with the world economy.

Lake of the Stars Music Festival

This past weekend I went with some friends to a Malawian music festival on the shores of Lake Malawi. It was my first music festival, but I think I had a pretty fair initiation. We danced all night long and most of the day too, slept 50 yards from speakers that blared music until after sunrise, and even had a morning of torrential rain. It was a beautiful location, the lake water was warm, and it wasn't too hot. They had all sorts of music, but I really enjoyed the first night of endless Drum and Bass and then two Malawian bands: Wambali and Mabingu. Apparently they play often in Lilongwe and I want to catch them again next time they are here.

Malawi food crisis in the news

From the Independent:

When the UN asked the world to give $88m to avert famine in Malawi, not one penny was forthcoming. How hungry does a nation have to be before help is at hand? ...
"We are living off air, all our crops have gone," said Lighton Kampira. "We planted at the right time, we waited for them to germinate and grow, but they wilted at knee high when the rains failed. Maize, sorghum, millet, it is all gone." Malawi is in the grip a food crisis.

This is a good article, with lots of sad stories about people - and at least one of my readers has been requesting more stories about the people. So here ya go:

Malawi: the country that has learned to expect nothing

What's your theological view?

Often people ask me what church do I go to? At the moment we go to a
baptist church - but I certainly don't think of myself as a baptist.
There is just far too much baggage in the word, "baptist". And don't
even mix it with the word "Southern". Before that it was Anglican. These
words don't hold much value to me, but yesterday Mark
pointed me to a quiz that helped me summarize things rather nicely. Here
are my results:

You scored as Emergent/Postmodern. You are Emergent/Postmodern in
your theology. You feel alienated from older forms of church, you don't
think they connect to modern culture very well. No one knows the whole
truth about God, and we have much to learn from each other, and so
learning takes place in dialogue. Evangelism should take place in
relationships rather than through crusades and altar-calls. People are
interested in spirituality and want to ask questions, so the church
should help them to do this.

This next part doesn't mean much to me, but I still found it
interesting, and sort of lets me know how my theology relates to people
who call themselves fundamentalist or evangelical or whatnot.



Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan


Classical Liberal


Reformed Evangelical






Modern Liberal




Roman Catholic


What's your theological worldview?
created withQuizFarm.com

WiFi Mesh v. WiMax

All hail WiMax, we await you to lead us unto broadband heaven.

In case you haven't been subjected to the hype yet, WiMax (aka 802.16), is the next generation wireless technology which is supposed to extend the range and the speed of today's technology by orders of magnitude. People talk about being able to cover a 30 mile radius with one WiMax access point.

This sounds pretty good to me, particularly for places like Malawi whose wired infrastructure is decades behind the rich countries. It is the ultimate leapfrog technology - one access point in a rural town in Africa would bring communication infrastructure rivaling anywhere in the world.

The promises are huge and have been around for a long time, but I can't just go to Fry's and pick up a WiMax access point and a card. In fact I can't buy the stuff from anywhere. The reasons I have heard include: they are still refining the specification, no one has proven the technology with a real world deployment, politics are holding it back, and the price is still too high. I wish I knew the answer, but I do know that I am getting tired of waiting.

Which brings me back to my vision of wireless meshes. Wireless mesh networks built with WiFi (802.11) exist, are cheap and have already been proven to work. Covering a 30 mile radius with WiFi would probably be beyond its limits, but covering a couple square miles is definitely manageable and wouldn't require much hardware. I would liberally estimate about 4 APs per square mile - so at $50 for a WRT54G, this means $200 per square mile.

Perhaps WiMax will swoop in and deliver all that has been promised, but until then I think we can do a lot with WiFi meshes. By the way, I am in the middle of Cory Doctorow's latest book - Someone Comes to Town Someone Leaves Town and it is excellent and a significant subplot is all about building an open wireless mesh in Toronto. Great stuff!

Africa Linux Chix

This sounds like a really great way to celebrate Software Freedom Day.

On September 10, 2005, members of LinuxChix Africa who live in Kenya will to hold a Career Workshop for High School girls to encourage them to go for careers in Computing. We believe that computing as a whole and Free and Open Source Software(FOSS) in particular, can play a significant role in empowering women.


I guess it would be even better if I was a woman and lived in Kenya. But hey, maybe I should have my own celebration in Lilongwe...