Archive for April, 2004

day two hundred ninety one a

This will be a quick catchall because I am leaving town for a week in about twenty minutes…

I was in the wrong with Tech. My understanding was that the things that I put up were not protected by copyright. It turns out that at least one, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is.

When things don’t work or are inefficient here I will often say to someone “Bienvenue à Mauritanie” (“Welcome to Mauritania”). It is just how things work here. Likewise when reading about the family of MLK suing people left and right over the usage of his works I think, “Welcome to America”. Everything’s property and everything’s for sale, right?

I feel bad about the whole thing with the server because I really did believe I wasn’t doing anything wrong. To have put the honors program (and the university) in legal jeopardy because of my ignorance is very disturbing to me.


Went out last night and smoked a hookah. You remember in the cartoon of _Alice in Wonderland_ where she is in the garden and meets a caterpillar? He is smoking from a tube coming from a odd pillar looking contraption. That is a hookah.

You smoke a flavored tobacco called shisha. Ours was apple.

All in all pretty entertaining. It is decidedly less harsh than smoking cigarettes. I didn’t feel especially affected mentally, but I usually don’t smoking cigarettes either. Well, I’ve done it twice now and didn’t really get into it.

I don’t plan on doing it again anytime soon since I’m sure it has all the same fun side effects as other types of smoking. It was neat though to be able to say I’d done it.


Went as a living English sample to a class that a friend of mine teaches. In honor of my coming he taught them the words “hillbilly,” “yokel” and “redneck.” I then got to try and explain the nuances between them. I also taught them the word “drawl.”

I was perhaps a bit overzealous and taught them that we use the words “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat.” Hopefully people know what they are talking about.


As I mentioned I am leaving town. I’ll be going back to Chinguetti and then to Choum where I will catch the train coming from the iron mines in Zouirat to Nouadhibou.

It is a trip I knew I wanted to take before I left and there are some volunteers in from Senegal who are doing it and I’m tagging along. I’ve got some work to do in several cities in the north, so it works out well.


If I do get removed from the honors computer I will disappear from the internet. I’m going to work at getting back, but if there is a lapse you will know why.

Well, I’m off.


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day two hundred eighty eight a

> Half a world away another bureaucracy is busy making problems to be > dealt with as well. I got mail from the fellow who took over taking care > of the honors server when I left Tech. Apparently someone has decided > that since I’m not a student I shouldn’t be allowed to have access to > the university resources anymore. My website, all the volunteer info, > this mailing list, and alot of other stuff all live on that computer at > Tech. If they cut me off that all goes away and being here and being > poor it is going to be difficult to deal with.

that does bite. let me know what you need hosted and we can work it out.

i can’t say that i’m terribly shocked, though – tech’s bureaucracy is the worst of the three universities i’ve worked at.


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day two hundred eighty eight a

This has been a hell of a day for technology and bureaucracy.

I came into the lab this afternoon to find that someone had been mucking about in the wiring closet. I normally keep my laptop and cd burner there and connect to them via the internet. Someone had taken some equipment out of the closet and replaced it with equipment from the lab. The problem is that the lab equipment is stuff we need to do our teaching, so it is something of a problem that it is now being used.

Someone had been playing with my laptop as well. They took the cable which connected it to my computer. They unplugged the power and it is a strange sort of plug which apparently confounded them because they mashed it in wrong and broke off a couple of the pins.

They stole my network cables as well, but I am getting accustomed to that since someone at this university has learned that if they come in and take my cables I make new ones. This has apparently been taken as tacit permission because it keeps on happening.

I messed with my cd burner and bent a couple of the pins back into place. Fortunately the ones that were broken off appear to have been expendable since the thing still works.

I’m honestly not an irritable or selfish sort of person, but this really gets to me. The idea of delicacy just doesn’t seem to exist here. I guess I’m just lucky no one dropped anything and that the burner still works. I’m going to take it home tonight.

Half a world away another bureaucracy is busy making problems to be dealt with as well. I got mail from the fellow who took over taking care of the honors server when I left Tech. Apparently someone has decided that since I’m not a student I shouldn’t be allowed to have access to the university resources anymore. My website, all the volunteer info, this mailing list, and alot of other stuff all live on that computer at Tech. If they cut me off that all goes away and being here and being poor it is going to be difficult to deal with.

It is just tiring honestly. With the crap here I put it off because my expectations for Mauritania are generally low. TTU though disappoints me a bit. I did work with the computer center for more than five years. Between helpdesk and doing wiring in the summers and programming for the education department I knew probably 90% of the people there. I was the student representative to the IT oversight committee my last year there. I gave the honors program the computer that they are now not going to let me access.

I’m not really happy with how I left because I had a big project that I screwed up on pretty badly, but at the same time I feel like they ought to at least give me some pittance. I gave $600 to the computer science department when I came back off co-op because I wasn’t happy with a project I did with them. It was more than I made when I worked for them. I haven’t had time to make amends though for my work with the education department. I wonder if someone is mad at me…

Anyhow, if I disappear completely from the internet and lots of stuff stops working, you know why…

For right now I just want to go take a nap and not try and think about how I’m going to deal with this hassle on top of the others.


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day two hundred eighty seven a

Programming is no more about understanding a computer language than being a novelist is about knowing how to write. It is a requisite to be sure, but knowledge and skill follow each other no more naturally than in any other creative practice.

When I was in Huntsville I went to the art museum and they had paintings done by elephants. They’d set out five or six buckets of nice bright primary colors out. The elephant would take a big fat paintbrush and swipe at the canvas a few times. I think maybe gorillas get an artistic itch sometimes as well.

Such is the level of a beginner programmer; broad and crude strokes. They are often taxed enough learning the syntax of the language. Grasping how one must think in order to properly use the language (and different languages require different styles of thinking) isn’t even an issue yet.

That they manage to get anything on the canvas is a feat. The idea of beauty is not even on the horizon.

I consider myself to be a fairly skilled programmer. Most of the work goes into taking the problem and figuring out how to express it to the computer. The actual writing it down afterward is mostly a logistical formality. I have a real appreciation for seeing a problem well dissected. There is a definite beauty in it as I have mentioned before.

Seeing that butchered by beginners is troubling sometimes. Imagine a place by a river where everyone grinds all their grain by hand. It takes most all of their time since it is a slow process and the flour that they produce is course and difficult to eat. Now imagine a similar village which built a water mill. It took more time and foresight, but now they have one man who makes lots of high quality flour in less time than the one person in the other village.

Less efficient solutions that require more work to accomplish are tiring for me because I would like to be able to teach them how to see a water mill when they see a stream and a field of corn. It is a much more direct path though to see, “grain… need it crushed… find something to crush it with…” and look no further because they have a solution that works.

I spent this afternoon helping a class with their work for a java programming class. There was that usual sense of frustration at needing to teach something more ineffable than simple syntax. It was compounded a hundred times though by all communication being in French.

I’d try and say, “using static sizing and positioning of the components in your layout will likely cause your program to display incorrectly in certain environments and will make future revisions more difficult.” I’d come out with, “that bad, see bad sometimes, future more hard like that.”

I’m pretty sure if I get sent to Hell for my heathen ways everyone there will be speaking French.

These guys are screwed anyway. There are literally hundreds of pages of documentation for the programming language that they are using. Even the most skilled of programmers have to refer to this regularly because there is simply too much information to remember it all. They can’t read a lick of it because it is all in English.

I’m sure they can finish their projects for class well enough, but as for becoming real professionals? You’ve got to speak the language and the language for 90% of computing’s new developments is English. So far as programming, I’ve not spoken to anyone doing programming work locally. There’s some work setting up networks and fixing computers and a bit designing webpages, but no real programming work. I suppose though that for many of them this class is just a stepping stone in getting their degree. I feel sort of bad though because I know that there have to be at least a couple who have the knack and would likely both enjoy and succeed as programmers.

I still like the idea of teaching though. I especially like the idea of having a class of my own where I could try and train them that the syntax they are learning is the least of their worries. One day, inshallah.


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day two hundred eighty five b

So, I’ve been here more than seven months now. In that time I have only really managed to accomplish one thing: I am certified to teach the first semester of the Cisco curriculum.

In principle we were going to head to Dakar and get all trained up right after we finished Stage. Then I was to go down by my self. Then someone was to come up from Dakar to train us. Then someone local was going to come in and do the training. Finally we managed to get through the first training. The second never happened as it was supposed to, but I had the solace of at least having started since I’m past a third of my Peace Corps service.

I talked to Cisco in California on the telephone the other day. I’m not certified to teach the first semester. The class that they created online was a student class rather than the instructor class we needed to take. The information was the same, but the exams would have been different. So, it turns out I’ve not actually done anything yet. I think if I hang out here long enough accomplishments from earlier in my life will begin to disappear. It’s a good thing I spent such a long time in college. Hopefully Mauritania won’t manage to eat through eight years before I get back and I’ll still have my high school diploma.

I’m not terribly troubled. It just worked to cure me of any lingering attachment I had to being productive.

A friend of mine, Eric, sent me the following question:

“Something that echos through my head every time I read one of these
things is, ‘why?’ From the tone of most of your journals it sounds
like these people need food, water and clothing alot more than they
need internet access via Cisco routers. With your knowledge and
abilities wouldn’t it help them more if you came back to the western
world and donated 20% of your salary to do something like distribute
information on how to rebuild their agricultural base?”

>From a the standpoint solely of the most good to the most people over the most time, quite possibly. As I understand it there are more people looking to get into Peace Corps than there are people looking to give them significant amounts of money.

If I were replaced with a agroforestry volunteer who would work on reforestation or nutrition or water conservation, would that likely help the lives of those most in need? Again, it is possible. I’m going to assume yes.

It is saddening. I disliked the feeling that would come over me every so often sitting watching TV that because I was choosing to use that time for myself somewhere a child starved to death. I thought maybe I could lose it in coming here, but there’s always something more that I could be doing.

The main question for me was the extent to which I owned my life. Was it mine to use as I pleased, or with privilege did there come some responsibility. If there did, as I suspected, how much. Did I have a right to any comfort at all so long as there were those with less who I could help by giving some of what I had?

I eventually decided that more than likely if I were really enlightened I’d think not, but as it was I was only sufficiently enlightened to want to suffer a bit. I’m generally helpful and caring, but not to the point that it is really uncomfortable.

It is not an especially pretty truth, but it is one I think most everyone lives with. I don’t know any saints. We all decide to stop giving of ourselves at some point.

Being here is pretty much along those lines. I am here mostly because I was scared of going out and getting a job or trying to get into a grad school. I liked the idea of traveling and seeing some of the world. I liked the idea of helping the world, but I was already a bit disillusioned of the idea that the world, in general, likes to change.

It isn’t that I don’t want to help. I do, it just isn’t the only reason I’m here. As Wilde said, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Maybe I’ll get enlightened and leave the Peace Corps and get a job with a big corporation making oodles of money to give away. That’d be an interesting twist. =)


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day two hundred eighty five a

I think I burned out a circuit or something. I went home this weekend with a short list of things to do and instead spent pretty much all of it asleep or reading.

I did discover that _The Eight_ by Katherine Neville, _The Man-Kinz Wars_ by Larry Niven, _Neverwhere_ by Neil Gaiman and _City of Illusions_ by Ursula LeGuin are pretty entertaining all. None of them are more than brain candy, but if you’ve got a bit of time _The Eight_ is worth a read.

I don’t feel exactly rested now, but not quite fried.

I think Lent is a big part of it. I thought the whole bit with Molly didn’t especially bother me. Night before last I was at a dinner with a cute French girl who usually I feel pretty comfortable talking around. I had been speaking some English with a volunteer from en brusse who can only speak Pulaar. By rights I knew I should switch to French to talk to the French girl, but I let it slide.

By far the easiest way to break a discipline is to just try and not think about it. Just put it out of your mind until it is too late. I heard it said the other day, “it is better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.”

I did recommit and managed to talk French with a French speaker. After dinner I went to a April Fools party with a friend of mine who is a really good cook. She had mashed potatoes with cheese. They don’t do cheddar here (because the French don’t do cheddar), but she had mimolette which was good enough. The next day she had me over for leftovers and even though her English is as good as mine I spoke my broken French.

For some reason writing makes me sleepy. =)


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