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.

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.

3D Printing

My printer.

Reading this week:

  • No Time to Lose by Peter Piot
  • The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

Look, this was inevitable. I expertly foreshadowed it at the end of my DeLorean Upgrades post, but I bought a 3D printer. Having successfully (“successfully”) produced one thing from a 3D model, it would simply be the thing that I would just keep on doing. I had been admiring various 3D printers online for weeks, and watching YouTube videos, and eventually decided to get a Monoprice Select Mini 2 off of ebay. The one I got was already modded with a variety of what seem to be the “standard” upgrades, like re-running the wiring for the build plate, installing a glass print bed, and some other tweaks around the edges. It arrived pretty quickly and I quickly got to work figuring out how to use it.

I wouldn’t say there was a learning curve, because I managed to print something off quickly after setting up, but the past few weeks have been a learning experience figuring out the capabilities of the printer, how to troubleshoot problems, how to prevent problems, and how to get the best prints considering the printer’s limitations. It’s been a lot of fun and no it totally hasn’t been distracting me from all the real work I need to do for grad school here, like studying or writing papers or whatever. Nope not at all.

The first big project I tackled was getting a switch cover for the DeLorean that actually worked. The thing that is really useful about 3D printing I think is not so much that you can print off random stuff at home, but that you can do iterative prototyping. You can print something and see what needs to be changed and then just print off the next version. I documented how I mangled the switch cover I paid $37 to get printed (leftmost in the picture), and I wound up printing off three more versions until I got the one that worked (mostly). You can see in the above photo some of that process, where I tried a two different hinge designs and had to modify the switch holder until I arrived at the below version, which mostly works. There are still tweaks to be done to it, though at some point I started eyeballing the design of the center console itself and frankly I live in a tiny apartment and don’t have the space or budget for the tools I am tempted to buy. But I think it looks pretty neat!

I guess that is a useful uh, use of 3D printing, but I also like the brand of YouTube videos that start with “is 3D printing actually useful?????” and then have a dude (I realized all the makers I watched on YouTube were dudes and made an effort to add some female makers; Simone Giertz I think is the one “everyone” knows, I have enjoyed April Wilkerson’s videos, and Laura Kampf I have to make more time for) show off like, the little organizer thing he printed. In that vein I am delighted to show off the stand that I designed for the soldering iron I still haven’t used, along with some clamps which I didn’t design and work surprisingly well. I imagine I might use them to clamp down the soldering iron stand when I eventually solder something:

That concludes the useful portion of 3D printing, and I will now move onto the random plastic things I have printed off for both myself and all my friends. Below on the left is a little cello for my roommate who loves to play the cello but doesn’t currently have access to one (she asked if I could print her a cello; she meant it as a joke and full-sized, bit I did my best here), and some parrots for my friend who loves birds and who wanted to get dinner on the night I got my 3D printer causing me to ditch him so I could play with my new toy. The one on the left is actually the second thing I ever printed, and the one on the right is a larger version as I got more familiar with the printer’s capabilities.

Below is a sheep for my super amazing girlfriend. She was the recipient of the very first print I did, which was a much tinier sheep and in yellow, and since she has been very supportive of my 3D printing and at least once was forced to try to fall asleep against the gentle tones of my 3D printer whining in the background, I made her a slightly bigger sheep and this time in black, which is a more realistic color. The smaller yellow sheep rests on top of it, belying the notion that it’s turtles all the way down.

I have also printed decorative items for myself! I printed the pumpkin because I thought my room needed some Halloween decor; it now rests on top of my webcam so when I am chatting with people I am really staring into the triangular eyes of my nearly-the-right-color pumpkin. The turtle is a somewhat failed attempt, in that it had some neat internal mechanics that my printer couldn’t handle and also I almost instantly snapped off two of its legs, the poor thing. At the bottom is my various failed attempts at printing off the Falcon. I forget what went wrong the first time, but then the printer jammed, and then the print fell over, and finally I decided to print it horizontally, which worked I guess but doesn’t look great.

I got a request to print off a boob planter (like, a thing for plants in the shape of boobs, not a thing in which to plant boobs). I swear this is true and I am not just using my printer to print smut, which I have unfortunately (via this project) discovered exists in bounds on the 3D printing website. Due to various problems with the printer, learning how to use it, and the fact that it is pretty slow anyways, this occupied days of my time and brainspace. The below picture is actually a failed print due to a clogged nozzle, causing it to be very weak. Eventually I got it (mostly) right and it was sent off to the recipient, who is using it in her boob-themed bathroom. The ship I printed for my own benefit because I like ships.

Having done all that, I am trying to branch out with my skillz. My lunchtime YouTube viewing now mostly consists of Ivan Miranda, and I admire the many things he builds that don’t really work, because it inspires me to try to build things that don’t really work. This is why I bought the soldering iron. Below is a stab at a paddle wheel boat which will require a massive redesign. And below that is various iterations of a holder for a motor for a propeller-powered device. These are what I design when I am supposed to be paying attention in class. One of the advantage of Zoom classes is that I am no longer forced to merely doodle in class when I don’t want to pay attention.

I hope you have enjoyed the various pictures of the random plastic things I have now had the opportunity to print. I specifically hope you enjoy it because at this rate my blog will now consist entirely of 3D printing projects, so stick around for that I guess. I am avoiding googling even more expensive printers, because I live in a tiny apartment and just don’t have the room.

Penguin Theft

Reading this week:

  • Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations by Lina Benabdallah
  • Against Elections: The Case for Democracy by David Van Reybrouck

We set out today to steal a penguin. The semester here at Yale as been dragging on a bit (they eliminated all the breaks, for reasons which made perfect sense, but man we don’t get a break), and we needed to switch things up and add some excitement to our life. So we went to Mystic Aquarium with the intent to steal a penguin.

The “we” in this scenario was me and my super amazing girlfriend. She will tell you that we did not in fact set out to steal a penguin, but instead went to Mystic Aquarium because it is a nice place to go and also that she has fond childhood memories of visiting every summer, but she is just trying to cover her tracks. We visited exactly a week ago from when this should be posted, so it was a slightly cool October day up in Mystic, and I was a bit surprised at how many people were there. They had timed tickets, so I had imagined relatively controlled crowds, but there were about as twice as many people as I would have really been comfortable with. And not to complain too heavily about children, but they’re excited to see beluga whales and less excited to stay six feet away from people. I can hardly blame ’em.

My super amazing girlfriend’s loyalties when it comes to favorite animals at the Mystic Aquarium is split between sharks and beluga whales. Luckily the whales are up first and we got to see them get fed and interact with people through the tank. They seemed to be having an alright time, so were a delight to watch, and by hanging out a bit we established ourselves as normal tourists instead of daring penguin thieves. You gotta establish your bonafides, you understand.

The biggest takeaway from the day was actually that the Mystic Aquarium is super into Halloween. There were Halloween decorations everywhere. The polar bear at the front had a giant spider in its mouth. The majority of the fish had to contend with new neighbors in the form of skulls and skeletons. There was an entire skeleton island in the marsh, and the rain forest exhibit featured incongruous pumpkins and unfortunately congruous black cats. Do they buy new stuff every year, or does the Mystic Aquarium have a gigantic warehouse of Halloween decorations stuffed to the gills 11 out of 12 months in the year?

Anyways, back to the heist. After passing by the seal and sea lion exhibits, where we admired their grace, beauty, and the fact that it kinda sounded like they were sneezing whenever they came up for air, we head up the marsh walkway. At Mystic, you split off the marsh walkway to get to the penguin exhibit. We spent a chunk of time here, to scope out the scene, and also (on our second go-around) to call my girlfriend’s sister, who loves penguins. Here I learned all the penguins have names consisting of two colors (“blue grey,” “yellow red,” etc), and are identified by beads on their armbands. We also learned that in captivity they lived for 30+ years and had regular appointments with an eye specialist. Most importantly, we learned that two penguins sitting in a little rock hut and looking out are very cute!

Unfortunately, there were just too many people, so we called off the heist for right then and decided to see the rest of the aquarium. After the penguins and the marsh, the rest of the exhibits were indoors, which we braved out of a love of sharks. I think I failed to take any good quality pictures of sharks, but I did take this photo of a blue lobster which, I am told, is very rare, and must also be a criminal, relegated as he was to an individualized jail. Poor thing.

There were also jellyfish, which I don’t normally really like because I have been stung by them before, but I figured they would make a cool gif. I also briefly was in awe of a living creature of such a different sort than the vertebrates I normally interact with, but that passed as I moved onto thinking about blog content:

After seeing all the indoor exhibits, we went outside and took another lap around the outdoor exhibits, but alas the potential for penguin thievery hadn’t improved any. So we went to go say goodbye to the belugas who, I am sure, were as sad to see us go as we were to leave them, and then exited via the gift shop. I managed to buy a lapel pin, despite them hiding them in the absolute least visible spot. We then set off to eat some seafood, which now that I think about it was probably in bad taste? Tasted good though. I also took this very nice picture (I think) of a pigeon:

Zoom Pedagogy

Reading this week:

  • Small Country by Gaël Faye

The pandemic hit and all my grad school classes went from being in-person to being on Zoom in the middle of a semester. I feel like this wasn’t as bad as it could have been (this is not a comment about the pandemic, which I don’t want to try to adequately address in a parenthetical). Since all of my classes had met in-person for half a semester, we all knew each other and so I think transitioning to seeing those same people on Zoom was pretty okay and you could maintain some of the same class dynamics. There were a lot of downsides, and frankly I couldn’t pay attention to online classes (I mostly just surfed Instagram in another tab), and my internet was pretty shitty then which made it difficult to attend class sometimes, but then again I had a pretty good excuse to simply not be in a class.

I dreaded the fall semester being online. I was pretty excited when Yale announced that we would be “hybrid,” which meant and as of this writing means a host of things, but I was excited for the chance to not be on Zoom. However, my internship over the summer was remote, so I got a lot more used to Zoom, and the prospect of being on Zoom all day no longer felt as bad. Plus my at-home setup improved significantly (I got a better chair and a second monitor), and now whenever I have to actually walk anywhere to go to an event it feels downright burdensome. All this is good, because all of the classes I am taking this semester are online anyways, so while some people are going to class in-person, I am not one of those people.

However, this has me thinking a lot about Zoom, and I think I have been to most versions of a Zoom class at this point, and so I think I have some authority to pontificate on the Dos and Don’ts of teaching over Zoom. My biggest regret on behalf of virtual students everywhere is that we missed a huge opportunity over the summer to really think through how an online class should work. The number one lesson we should all get out of this is that a Zoom class is not a regular class. I think a teacher that just tries to do their normal thing except into their webcam is not going to have crafted a particularly good experience. I also don’t think it would ever be easy to simply switch back and forth, because the kind of class you teach in person must be so different than the one on Zoom.

Other people have thought about this, but I don’t think we have thought about it enough. I particularly enjoyed this article about what videoconferencing could look like, and I think all the points are spot on. Zoom itself is probably a terrible way to classes in every scenario, and it is unfortunate that was what was ready to go when we all needed it. A quick google search for “zoom pedagogy” will also get you a number of articles giving you some tips, but I don’t think a lot of people have done that Google search. At the beginning of one of my classes this semester, the professor asked us to think of some ways to make sure the class was productive, and people were suggesting things like respect and making sure you do the readings. I was googling Zoom tips as fast as I could and people seemed surprised to be thinking about the idiosyncrasies of the Zoom format. All of which is to say we need to think more about how to teach a class over Zoom before we start barreling in! I shall now barrel into my thoughts:

An absolute minimum amount of time should be spent on Zoom. Staring at a computer screen is way shittier than staring at a teacher in real life, so I think lectures should not be held on Zoom. I think they should probably be pre-recorded, with automatic transcription added and then also posted in such a way that people can speed them up or slow them down. Then, class should be reserved for actual discussion and questions. Some teachers I know ask you to watch the pre-recorded lecture, and then just hold the lecture again. This is unhelpful and dumb.

Teachers need to make a much larger effort to make the class interactive. I think any class without time in the breakout rooms is an entirely wasted class. Even in a class of 15 people I hate trying to pipe up with everybody, but throw me in a breakout room with 3-4 people and suddenly we can actually have a conversation about a topic. Then maybe we can report back to the class or something, but have your students spend time actually being able to interact with people. I also think teachers should incorporate polls or other interactive things to just make students have to focus back into the class once again. There are also plenty of game platforms teachers could use to help students interact.

Make sure to enforce breaks! For serious, take a five-minute break every hour. Staring at Zoom sucks.

Teachers need to radically modify their expectations for presence. I think almost all of my classes at least state that students should be on-camera “as much as possible,” with a potential exception for bandwidth. I think this is a bad expectation and needs to be eliminated. There is an equity issue here, where students might not have the space at home where they can feel comfortable presenting themselves, even with virtual backgrounds or whatnot. It also helps with bandwidth, and although like I said many make an exception for it, once it is the class norm to be on-camera people feel pressured to be on-camera. I personally also find it very distracting to have myself staring back at me, and I suspect that builds anxiety for a number of people about how they look and how they’re presenting themselves. I realize people are visible in a classroom, but it’s a much different environment when people are largely focused on the teacher and the students are just another member of the “audience.” On Zoom, everyone is on equal footing, and everyone can be watched, and given that you can see yourself you are very aware of this. Just eliminate this expectation to be on camera. Zoom is never going to be a good substitute for the classroom, and so it will take some getting used to but we need to establish different norms for that presence. Also in here should be a point about being very flexible about whether people can show up to class at all.

Teachers should call on people. As a guy who will pipe up readily in real-life class, I find it awkward to say anything in a Zoom class. It feels more like a performance I have to get ready for when I’m framed on a camera, and it’s just awkward to figure out who’s trying to talk or who is about to unmute or who has their virtual hand raised or their real hand raised or whatever. Teachers should be in charge of calling on people and coordinating who is speaking when. My super amazing girlfriend teaches a section with few enough students that they can all see each other on one Zoom screen and everyone can see who wants to talk, but Zoom can quickly scale to where that’s no longer really possible, and that changes too if someone is screen sharing. This is probably also a great opportunity to ensure equity in the classroom, and making sure it isn’t just white guys dominating a conversation. So just call on people.

These are just technology complaints. I don’t think you should try to play a video over Zoom. You run into bandwidth issues and it becomes choppy half the time and the other half of the time you listen to it without the audio because the teacher didn’t click the right button. My super amazing girlfriend thinks there shouldn’t be any videos in a class anyways, so there. Also please teachers double-check the breakout rooms. I spent part of a Spanish class in a breakout room by myself, which was kind of relaxing but not very helpful.

Overall, I actually think it is a really great thing that the world has become much more adept to videoconferencing. A year ago, if you wanted to meet someone virtually, that would have been difficult to coordinate. But now, I am able to ask a whole range of people all over the world for a Zoom call and that is a perfectly normal request people are adept at handling. I think that radically changes the ability to network and connect with people, because instead of dragging someone out to a Starbucks you just need to ask them to click a Zoom link, and you could be in say, Connecticut while they are in DC. I also was able to conduct an internship remotely that in other years would have been in DC. It was much different than an in-person internship I think, but I really really hope the world retains this capability. That would open up internships and other opportunities to all sorts of people who would not otherwise be able to move themselves to DC or New York for the summer, or who need to be able to take care of a child at home or any other reason they can’t sit in an office 9-5.

I really hope there are a lot of people out there really thinking through how to improve the online presence and online teaching paradigm, in ways that aren’t just improving the camera quality. Now that we’re all comfortable with the concept of having classes and meetings online, we can really think through a new paradigm to make it as good and equitable an experience as possible. A boy can dream.

Apple Picking Redux

Reading this week:

  • Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution by Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont

It is fall in New England so we went apple picking. Couple of points here. First, as you can tell from the title of this post including the word “Redux,” this was an event we also did last year, when it was also fall in New England (being a year ago, you understand). Despite the similarities in the season, and despite the fact that I again busted out my super sweet safari jacket (modelled above), there were a number of differences. I have not recently read any Steinbeck, so I didn’t ponder as closely how our adventure related to the plight of the American worker. I also haven’t talked about Marx nearly as much in the past few months as I did in the fall of last year. I feel very overworked this year; maybe the decline of Marx in my life and the increase in work is related.

The most significant difference between last year and this year, however, is the huge difference in the use of “we” in the sentence “we went apple picking.” Last year we got official funding from Yale to go on a group-bonding expedition, and so the we was a whole host of people. This year, “we” includes only myself and my super amazing awesome girlfriend, who is awesome, and who totally exists, despite the fact I felt weird about posting pictures of her here because I haven’t asked her about it. Unlike me, who is from the Southern land of Maryland, she is from New England, up in Massachusetts, and she goes apple picking every year. It is a pandemic and all, which is why we couldn’t go with all of our closest friends like we did last year, but going apple picking was a nice respite from the looming threat of death and a lifetime of heart damage.

We were not the only ones who felt this way! As you can’t see from the picture above (I really promise I was not the only person in the apple orchard that day), a number of people were there that day picking apples. But that’s not all! The orchard also had pears (I am fairly surprised by the wide range of fruit that grows up here in the frigid reaches of Connecticut), and people (including us) were picking those too. They had a corn maze that didn’t strike us as worth $7, but others disagreed. So it was a grand ole day staying warily apart from other people in a field as we picked various fruits off of trees. We filled up a whole bag, and took various photos so we can someday admire how young and sprightly we once were. Here, the super amazing girlfriend I have mentioned so often took an action shot of me picking an apple:

This was all very fun! We had a great time. I wish I had written this blog post closer to the actual event so I could relay to you more intimate details, instead of what I currently have, which is a hazy memory of having a really nice day outside among some trees.

This apple picking is a healthy activity, involving healthy fruit and walking outside in the fresh air, so we had to rectify that with a trip to the farm store on the way out. This particular farm store was much more of a supermarket, but it had cider donuts and cider and that is what we were there for so we were quite successful in that. I took two pictures of things that were funny:

The image on the left I enjoy because it makes me feel bad for the plantains, whom I am sure would like to be defined as something other than what they are not. And as a fan of plantains, I want to defend them here by saying if they’re not as sweet, they’re just as nice. The image on the right is an AMERICAN chicken pie, which is not the funny part. The funny part is right under that label, which I hope you can see, which says NO VEGETABLES, which I think is just a standard food label but I like to think it speaks to the AMERICANness of the pie.

After all this we went home. Please stick with me, I will write better blog posts in the future. I am quite swamped with work!!!

Development Apps

I googled “Africa cellphone” to find this picture, and I know I have seen it on at least one company’s marketing materials.

Reading this week:

  • Kenya: The Struggle for a New Constitutional Order edited by Godwin R. Murunga, Duncan Okello, and Anders Sjögren

I spent the summer at an internship reviewing old grants for development projects. This was a lot more interesting than it sounds!! There were all sorts of grant applications, from all over the world, and grantees provided regular updates on their progress. That meant as I reviewed the old grants I got to see these people face new problems and overcome them (or not).

The major schtick of the place I was interning was that they did innovative ideas. This is the 21st century, so a lot of time “innovation” is synonymous with “cell phone app.” This isn’t exactly crazy; a lot of the reason that development is hard is that development requires interconnectedness between people, and the whole point of cell phones is to make that easier. So I reviewed a number of app grants. Like all the grants, these too were pretty interesting to me mostly because of all the unexpected problems that people ran into.

Before we get too into this, I want to apologize for vague blogging. Seems like a lot of work to get permission to publish people’s processes, so I’m just going to allude to stuff.

The app with perhaps the most lessons learned had to be one that was designed to help with patient follow-up. Right from the outset they wanted to make it usable to the most number of people possible, so they designed it to be used on feature phones, aka dumb phones. This is a good instinct! They worked real hard to make it super accessible. But man were some of their assumptions off.

One of the funniest to me is that they discovered just how limited some people’s phones were. They initially designed it so you had to reply with a text message, like “yes” or “no,” typing that stuff out T9 style. But then they discovered that some people didn’t even have the capability to do that, and had to switch it up so you could just reply with a number, like “1” or “2” (one creative solution to this technology problem was that some people just gave smartphones to their target audience; for one of those developers, the deal was that if you got a smartphone you were supposed to text vital information to people with dumbphones).

Another assumption they made was that people could read. They figured out a lot of their users were in fact illiterate, and had memorized the menu. That was actually the sort of problem I had read about before! I can’t find the original article I read detailing it, but over in India YouTube has become the search engine of choice for many people. Two things made that possible: really cheap data, and voice search. This WSJ article makes voice search (aka voice-to-text into the search box) just sound like a feature they just added for fun, but there is a huge number of illiterate phone users in India. However, these illiterate users can just talk to their phone, and get a video back, which gets around the reading thing (I’m not worried about this as some Black Mirror future scenario, but it kinda plays into this analysis that everyone in Star Wars is functionally illiterate). This pops up all the time in apps and app designers should think about how to make their app usable by the illiterate (Maybe the blind or disabled too? Dream big). Ignitia, which texts weather forecasts to farmers, found that using keywords consistently helps illiterate farmers decipher their forecasts (they text things along the lines of “Heavy rain today. Sun tomorrow.” Farmers can recognize “rain” in the first sentence, and know it will rain today, and that “sun” in the second sentence means no rain tomorrow).

Yet another non-intuitive assumption that designers made is that every phone or phone number corresponded to a particular person. This was a bad assumption! A lot of times a single phone would be shared between several people, such as a group of friends or a family. I didn’t actually discover anyone who came up with an elegant way to solve this problem, but if you’re designing an app make sure that it can be used by several people on the same phone pretty smoothly. And maybe don’t just send a push notification for sensitive information? Yet another company ran into a problem when people’s phone numbers kept changing. They tried to maintain a database of people’s contact information, but people would switch service providers all the time, and therefore switch phone numbers, whenever a different service provided a slightly better deal. The company’s database got out of date really quick, and again I didn’t see them come up with an elegant solution to solve it. Things to keep in mind!

Another thing just from my personal experience using a phone in a rural village in Zambia is that make sure your app doesn’t use a lot of data! Optimize the shit out of that thing! And data access can be spotty! Make sure your app works with only an intermittent connection to data! I have a lot of vague hypothetical thoughts about this, but make sure your app also functions elegantly when it reconnects to data! Don’t have it download out of date stuff just because it was in the queue! And make sure that your app can pick up right where it left off after a failed download, instead of making a large download start over just because data was interrupted for a second!

One solution people have tried to implement to the whole data being expensive thing is to subsidize their user’s data cost. Unless you have the engineering chops of Facebook, this is probably a bad idea. My favorite was one company that had it set up so that their agents were supposed to text them back, and so had provided their agents with prepaid texting plans. Turns out their agents used all their text messages to chat up girls, and when the time came to actually use their text messages for their intended purpose, they had none left. The company had to switch to a different system to avoid having to get their agents to text them, all because they couldn’t resist hitting on women. Men, amiright?

There were more lessons, but they’re hard to convey in a vagueblog. I also think that the best design ideas for development apps are yet to come. There are a whole lot of efforts to leverage the technology, but I don’t know if I’ve seen a “killer app” (or, since it’s for development, “lifesaving app”) for the developing world. That being said, there are a number I like. A few different apps that give users information via a map (like vegetation data) have been good, so maybe better geospatial information could be useful. I also like the simple implementations; one company trains people in first aid, and then loads onto their phones refresher videos so they can review the lessons at any time. Very neat! Maybe excellent avenues to pursue. The deepest lesson however is, like everything else in development, to let your users guide your app. You’ll find they manage to use it for things you didn’t think of, and have suggestions that could make it way better.

Addition 10/25/2020:

One lesson learned I didn’t include above is one company that tried to distribute their app via the Google Play Store, only to find out that 95% percent of attempted downloads couldn’t be completed because the Play Store required people to have an email address, which was very uncommon in the developing country context they were working in. This was literally something like a million potential users who tried to access the app but just couldn’t. It seemed niche so I excluded it from this post, but then today I come across this New York Times article about Seesaw’s experience suddenly being a critical pandemic-era app. The line I wanted to quote here was that “Numerous students didn’t have email addresses and needed a different way to log in from home.” It looks like the assumption that a potential user has an email address or will attempt to get one is a very bad assumption indeed!