Social Enterprise Instagrams

Reading this week:

  • The Emperor’s New Road by Jonathan E. Hillman
  • Shadow Cities by Robert Neuwirth
  • Blinded by Humanity by Martin Barber
  • Africa uprising: Popular protest and political change by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly

I was at a little bit of a loss as to what to write about this week. I haven’t done much and we’re about to embrace the crush of writing papers that I should have started weeks ago, but haven’t. I thought about writing on my reflections on Thanksgiving, and how my single favorite expression of American-ness is that people, as soon as they find out you don’t have a place to go for Thanksgiving, will invite you to their place, even foreigners who don’t celebrate the holiday (there’s a lot to unpack about the history of genocide against Native Americans, but still the invite-you-over bit is nice). Or maybe review the various Thanksgivings I’ve had over the years, with my fellow Navy peeps or abroad in the Peace Corps. I even pondered if there was something to write about the Berkshires, where my super amazing girlfriend and I went, I think primarily for sheep photography opportunities, as demonstrated at the top.

Instead of all that, I’m going to briefly make fun of the Instagram accounts of various social enterprises. As detailed in my blog post about development apps, I had an internship where I looked at development grants. As part of this, I looked at these organization’s websites, and I was always somewhat intrigued as to the bevy of social media profiles they inevitably displayed on their webpages. My thesis here is gonna be that I’ve never seen a good corporate instagram. Like, LinkedIn I understand. Facebook has an excellent argument, because for a lot of the places where these development-focused social enterprises work, Facebook kinda is the internet due to their Free Basics program. But Instagram? Why are any of these peeps on Instagram?

The absolute easiest victim I’m going to have here to today is Potential Energy, who took the classic route of having some engineers design a “better” (I shouldn’t put that in sarcasm quotes, it’s well-designed and pretty great) cookstove, figuring like, marketing and supply chains and all that would be easy. A quick Google search reveals that the top-followed brands on Instagram are almost all fashion or beauty brands, which naturally play well to Instagram. But cookstoves? What are you going to post about with a cookstove? The whole NGO sphere probably needs a real strong rethink about how they market themselves. It’s been sufficiently skewered elsewhere, but in the same way that I’m someday going to make a submarine movie with no external shots, someday I’m going to start an NGO and include no children (smiling or otherwise) in my marketing materials. Clearly Potential Energy has similarly failed to come up with anything to do with their Instagram (their latest of six posts was two years ago), but nonetheless they still link to the thing right on their homepage.

My personal favorite social enterprise Instagram account is actually Orb Energy. They’re not actually so social enterprise-y, they are in fact a pretty run of the mill solar installer, but hey solar is great and they do some neat financing stuff. They’ve neatly solved the problem of what to do with their Instagram account by just posting photo after photo of solar installations, and lemme tell ya: oooh baby. Sure, they’ve only got 266 followers, but taking photos of their latest rooftop solar project and slapping that bad boy up on Instagram has to be pretty low overhead, and if you’re a fan of just panel after panel of sweet sweet photovoltaics, this is the account for the #SolarInfluencer in you.

Two of the companies I find most impressive for their absolute dedication to the craft despite the complete lack of any possible benefit are PCI Global (who also has a Pinterest???) and the RAND Corporation. Both are big ole’ corporate entities who clearly have dedicated social media teams, producing high quality content and thought-out infographics. They deliver this hot hot content to their combined sub-5K followers, which puts them firmly in the micro-influencer category, good for them. I wonder how these social media teams are assessed on their annual reports. Clearly it’s not on a cost-benefit analysis, as far as their Instagrams go. I personally like to think these are a small band of people absolutely dedicated to their craft, valuing the work for its artistry instead of any commercial success. Except I hope they get paid well. It’s pretty good stuff!

And with that we’ve pretty much reached the limit of the the kinda intelligent things I have to say about social enterprise Instagram accounts. I rounded up a few others I thought were good examples of I dunno, something. SafeBoda I like for its clear orange aesthetic and how it features its employees with nice messages about safety. Grillo I was going to mock for not having posted anything (at time of writing) for over half a year, and mostly featuring pictures of sensors. I have a few others (Keheala, Zola, VisionSpring) in case anyone wants more examples of the genre, but really it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel here. Kinda weird, and also why would anyone do that?

Cat Café 3

Reading this week:

  • Invisible Governance: The Art of African Micropolitics by David Hecht & Maliqalim Simone
  • This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

I have named this blog post “Cate Café 3” because it is the third time I have been to a cat café. Frankly I have not gone nearly enough. For those that didn’t bother to click the last link, the first time I went to a cat café was in Singapore, the second time was in Washington DC, and the third time was in our very own New Haven.

The cat café here in town is called, appropriately, Mew Haven. They run on the DC model, where they partner with a shelter and you can adopt the cats, vice the Singapore model, where the cats were exclusive to the café and were featured on all the merchandise. I follow both Crumbs & Whiskers and Mew Haven on Facebook, and frankly Crumbs & Whiskers has much better photography. This led me to incorrectly believe that Mew Haven would be an inferior cat café experience, which was probably part of the reason that it took me a year and a half to get to the place. I could not have been more wrong in my impression! Mew Haven was great!

But first the getting there. I finally booked tickets for my girlfriend and I when I guess the unbearableness of not having a cat became too much, and also it was something to do to get out of the house and also I have been feeling like I should contribute more to my community in the monetary sense and the cat café is a good cause. It’s on the other side of town, so a scooch after lunch we piled into the DeLorean and set off. We had never been to that side of town and were surprised to discover a sweet little downtown area with a dance studio and a hip-looking coffee shop and a vintage store. Very nice!

They’ve got some COVID protocols in place, and so the sessions are only 50 minutes long, making me antsy to get in. But they had to process people so it took a few minutes, but all happened smoothly. And then we were in with the cats!

It was a really good cat café session. They had something like 17 cats all crammed into there, and a large number of those were kittens who were very playful. Unfortunately they don’t let you pick up the cats, in which case I would have tried to hold all of them at once, but it’s probably for the best. I entertained myself trying to get two cute little kittens to bother an adult cat who was trying to take a nap, while my super amazing girlfriend quickly found a friendly momma cat and dedicated a good chunk of time to petting her. I also found out on this excursion that my girlfriend has a particular for large cats, and there were some excellent chonkers to keep her quite happy.

I was sad that at the end of a very short 50 minutes our time with the cats had come to an end, and we had to shuffle out of there. The Mew Haven cat café is very well run and has excellent cats and I can’t recommend them highly enough if you just want to get more cats into your life. Someday, when the lease allows, I’ll just go ahead and get an in-home cat café, but until then I’m willing to outsource to Mew Haven.

Combat Shirt

Reading this week:

  • The Fixer: Visa Lottery Chronicles by Charles Piot with Kodjo Nicolas Batema

In and amongst everything else in the world that’s going on, this is largely an aside, but I want to talk about the combat shirt. I went to the Naval Academy, as I’ve covered before, and that was a really fortunate thing for me, sartorially speaking. It was far from unusual to have to wear a double-breasted suit to class. It was also important to have the fit of your uniform correct, and to be always well presented, and these are the day-to-day skills of wearing clothes well that I don’t think the average college kid is necessarily forced to pick up. I didn’t know how to iron before I had to start wearing uniforms. A lot of modern tailoring descends from military uniforms, and seeing as I am so familiar with them now I have a better understanding of why men dress the way they do. It also gave me a few weird neurosis. For a long time I found garters to be a bit of a turn-off because they reminded me too much of shirt stays:

But like I said, the combat shirt. You’ve seen them, and it’s what Colonel Assimi Goïta is wearing in the picture at the top. I find the fact that he is wearing one more than a little wild. I spotted that picture when I was catching up on old news, and our good friend the Colonel is now best known for being the leader of the coup that ousted the President of Mali.

You can read this rundown of the history of the combat shirt, but they really took off a bit into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you’ll recall your Vietnam movies, soldiers were typically wearing blouses over t-shirts into combat. Those blouses kinda suck under tactical vests or plate carriers, because the front pockets are useless (being covered by the vest) and it’s extra material that is hot and scratchy and all that. But the sleeves were useful to protect the arms, and also the pockets are nice, so what peeps did is cut the arms off the blouse and the body off a shirt and sew them back together to get the best of both worlds.

Since it was special forces guys who first started really being known for these shirts, and special forces guys are generally considered the epitome of cool, as far as military stuff goes, they became the hot hot item and everyone had to have one, whether you were regularly going into combat or not. And that means they have become the de rigueur military look. I am starting to sense I find a lot of things remarkable (though I guess what is a blog for but to remark on things), but I find remarkable how quickly the US military sets the international military fashion scene. Not long after the US switched to digi uniforms the rest of the world did too. And so it is with the combat shirt, as evidenced by the main character in the Chinese movie Wolf Warrior wearing one:

As soon as you know what you’re looking at too, it’s all over Hollywood. The below still is Vin Diesel being Vin Diesel-y in Bloodshot. He’s wearing quite the take on the combat shirt, reduced almost to its bare essence with just the hint of a different material on the sleeves and slanted pockets he doesn’t appear to be using for anything. I think Hollywood is a particular fan of the combat shirt because the light t-shirt material lets you show off the actor’s abs, while the thicker sleeve material helps you bulk up the arms.

The ubiquity of the combat shirt with Hollywood tough guys means it is also used by anyone trying to look tough, namely in this example the armed vigilante “militia” nitwit on the left in the below picture:

All of which brings me back to Colonel Goïta at the top. He actually has an excellent claim to wear a combat shirt. He was trained in the US, making him part of the proud tradition of US-trained foreign soldiers overthrowing their government in coups. He’s worked for years with the US forces that have been operating in Mali, and I assume it’s from them he got the wardrobe. But I find it interesting he’s wearing the shirt in that photo. The combat shirt is, you know, for combat, and he is surrounded by other guys wearing more normal blouses as you would expect from military people not actively running around in a plate carrier. Says something both about the ubiquity of US military imagery and the particular psyche of the Colonel that he chose to wear that particular outfit. I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out what.

Update Apr 27, 2021:

I just wanted to add this picture of Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic. Everyone wants to look like US special forces:

The Election

Reading this week:

  • Medallion Status by John Hodgman

This post is for me. It’s me trying to work some things out. I should have written it earlier, when I was angrier and more tense. I’m writing this on Wednesday night, still before it is clear who the winner is but with Biden the clear favorite.

With Biden pulling ahead, and behind me a day of being upset and distracted, I’ve calmed down considerably. But what have I calmed down about? I was hoping for a blue wave, a Democratic landslide, a firm repudiation of the vileness of the Republican party and what they stand for. That didn’t happen. Instead, while Biden has maybe squeaked out a win over Trump, I am still faced with the gut-wrenching reality that millions upon millions of Americans looked at a corrupted orange husk of a man and thought to themselves “that’s our guy.”

I have to keep reminding myself that this is historic, awesome, awe-inspiring. Biden has garnered more votes than any candidate in history, outstripping Trump by millions of votes, the votes of citizens that raised their heads and decided they wanted Biden’s fundamental decency to represent them on the world stage. No one has unseated a sitting president in nearly three decades, and before that it was the Democrats that got regularly knocked out. This is unprecedented, this is historic, this is great. I have to keep reminding myself of that instead of mourning the 55 Senate majority it is now clear we were never going to have.

Fundamentally, I don’t know how to feel. It’s frustrating to work through these emotions. I wish someone would tell me what I have a right to feel, which feelings are useful and should be cherished and which are harmful and should be tossed out. When it seemed like Trump was going to be reelected, I was angry. But what was I angry at? In so many ways, this election doesn’t affect me. I’m a mediocre white guy, which provides me boundless opportunity in America, no matter who wins.

I think to myself that maybe I could have been angry on behalf of all the vulnerable people affected by Republican policies in this country. This is a power of being a white guy; we are lauded when we get angry. It’s seen as machismo and leadership and daring. I could use that anger to protect the little guy. But what did I actually do to protect them? I did not help much this election. It didn’t seem worthwhile to campaign; I live and vote in Connecticut. Besides, I told myself, I was far too busy as a grad student to be able to do anything. I signed up for one phone banking shift, but when the day came I had homework to do and pulled out. When things seemed really bad I would assuage my guilt by throwing $25 or $50 at a campaign or cause I liked.

My worst impulse was feeling like I should run away from America. Facing the possibility of a Trump win, forced to face the cruel reality that enough voters would disagree with me to pick a man I hated, that maybe I could just move somewhere else. Where else? I don’t know. But the mere ability to contemplate just packing up and moving out, doing nothing to help the people left behind to survive in that awful vision is wrapped up in so much privilege and selfishness it’s mortifying to just be able to admit that the thought crossed my mind.

But the thought of staying is also overwhelming. Clearly something must be done. But what? I don’t know. My friend who is a nurse told me about a patient of hers who was hospitalized for COVID, and after the experience still felt that COVID was no big deal. What more could you possibly do to convince a person like that? Faced with their own terrifying mortality, they still can’t accept the truth. How do you sway a whole nation of people like that?

One of the major reasons I am interested in international development is that I fundamentally feel those problems are easy. I am viscerally aware that generations of development practitioners before me felt the same way, and I don’t want to get lost in the nuance. But you look at people in the world and the solutions seem so obvious. People are hungry? Feed them. People are homeless? House them. People are sick? Heal them.

The atrocious part is that these problems that people face there, our people face here. That is absurd. Here, in the United States, for every person facing hardship and need, we have the food to feed them, the homes to house them, and the medicines to heal them. We have the resources to make it all happen, and we simply don’t. I feel so small and powerless against this titanic moral breach in the American populace that lets them look at their own countrymen and say to themselves that those other people don’t deserve help. I would rather run away to Africa to try to solve their problems, because deep down I know that if I fail, I will still be okay. That doesn’t apply in America.

And so like I said at the top I should have written this when I was angrier. It would have felt more meaningful. It’s still not clear that Biden is going to win. But no matter what I get to calm down. Move on with my life. I’ve even wondered if my job prospects next summer wouldn’t be better under a Trump presidency, because even under him I want to work for the government and I feel like there would be less competition under Trump. I have massive privilege that lets me get angry, that lets me spend a day and a half wallowing in anger and frustration, looking for any remaining Republicans on my Facebook to lash out and yell at, before settling in to live the same life I would have led either way. That anger feels unjustified; I didn’t work to earn it, and my life doesn’t merit it. And so I don’t know what to feel. Happy, I suppose.

Sleeping Giant

Reading this week:

  • The Elusive Quest for Growth by William Easterly

This weekend we went to Sleeping Giant State Park here in Connecticut. The “we” here, as is now typical, is my super amazing girlfriend and I, because it is pandemic times and doing adventurous socialization with anyone but each other is somewhat irresponsible. Because it is vaguely related, I would like to take a pause for a meme I just made:

Anyways, Sleeping Giant is not too terribly far from New Haven, where we live and go to school and stuff, but it is outside of the town and outside of walking distance which makes the whole expedition seem like an adventure. The main source of entertainment in Sleeping Giant is walking around looking at stuff, aka hiking, and we came dressed to hike. My super amazing girlfriend was wearing like a technical sorta jacket, and I was wearing my safari jacket, along with some new pants I have recently bought. After navigating the annoyingly complicated system of paying for parking online, we set off to go hike and stuff!

Here we ran into trouble. All paths in Sleeping Giant more or less lead to this cool castle thing they got at the peak of one of the hills, so we were a bit agnostic about which trail we took. Not that the map clues you into such important information as the fact that some of the trails have really kinda steep rock scrambles which look not amazing on a good day but are even worse when it is somewhat wet out and neither of us were wearing particularly good hiking shoes, despite saying just in the last paragraph that we were dressed to hike. So we decided to turn around and head back to the trailhead to take another stab at it.

From there, we tried to follow a different trail which looked somewhat more promising, based solely on trying to divine the nature of the various trails from the map which provided the nature of the trails and little else. This trail was a bit better, but got progressively steeper and steeper until we were more or less scrambling over rocks again, until we reached the very upper lip of this portion of trail to find ourselves on an unpaved road which was perfectly pleasant to walk along.

And walk we did! We had a great time. The park was relatively crowded, and that was a bit uncomfortable at first (I wonder how long it will be until I face the world, find people in it, and don’t recoil in fear and trepidation), but then again the park has acres and acres and you could probably fit a whole lot of people in it and still stay socially distanced. It was also about this time that I tried to engage in a philosophical conversation about the nature of leaf peeping. The super amazing girlfriend, being super amazing, was pretty game for this conversation, but turns out there’s just not a whole lot of depth there. I briefly tried to wonder if going to aquariums shouldn’t be called “fish peeping,” but that’s about as far as it all got.

At the top we got to the castle thing, which was pretty cool. It’s an historic structure, in that it was built some time ago, but it has always just been a cool kinda thing you can climb up to the top of. It’s not like, a defensive fortification or a former home or anything. But the views get progressively nicer as you go up and we spent some time admiring all the leaves, like you do. Earlier on in the hike, I had struck a pose for a picture, which the super amazing girlfriend commented on as being my go-to pose, which is fair because it is, but for my picture at the top I made sure to exaggerate it as much as possible:

After poking around at the top, there was nowhere to go but down, so down we went. It was much like the hike to the top, except no rock scrambles, which was an improvement. There also appeared to be even more dogs on the way down than on the way up, and we got to admire all of them. There was a particular French bulldog that we followed behind for quite some time, and he was very popular with everyone and that was cute to see. At one point he came across an even smaller French bulldog and this was borderline too much. Eventually we got back to the car and drove off into the sunset, or whatever. It was a fantastic day out and it was nice to see the world before it got too bitterly cold for such things.