Blockchain for Social Good

At the behest of Russam GMS, a specialist in interim executive appointments, I wrote the following blog post about blockchain in the social enterprise.  Have a look…

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/blockchain-social-good-areiel-wolanow?trk=pulse_spock-articles

 

 

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The Rise and Fall of Silk Road – Wired returns to what it does best

I remember when Wired magazine first came out in 1993. It was the same year I first installed a web browser on my computer.  I was a Valley rat in those days, job-hopping every two years or so, quite caught up in the surreal suspended reality of the dot.com boom.  And Wired was the perfect oracle for the time.

It was was entirely a hard copy magazine at first, and there was a glorious audacity to it.  From the very beginning it published in a perfect-bound form factor, instead of the single signature stapled through the center that is a far more common, and fiscally prudent — with a stapled-signature format each issue could be as few or as many pages as the combination of content and ads for that issue warranted, but perfect-bound publications need a minimum number of pages to be technically feasible.  So there was a delicious arrogance in going perfect-bound from their first issue — a proclamation of confidence that even without any initial brand recognition, they had zero worries about selling enough ad space to warrant their investment.

A cover of Wired from 1997

A cover of Wired from 1997

That arrogance was well warranted. Their journalism made for deeply enjoyable reading, and nowhere more so than their feature articles.  They were a good 50% longer than conventional wisdom says a feature article has any right being.  And more than anything else, the staff at Wired had the knack for turning a string of facts into a truly compelling narrative.  Their news items were stories in the true sense of the word; every issue was a new delight.

The dot.com bubble did not last of course, and when it burst, the fortunes of Wired largely paralleled its rise and fall. Wired managed to survive and evolve; I still subscribe, though now this takes the form of having their RSS feed on my iPhone’s news reader.  What comes across the feed is quite different from the Wired of the 90’s; they now compete with the likes of Engadget and Gizmodo as purveyors of the new and the cool, dispensing meme-sized factoids on technology, science, and nerd culture.  Even in this form they tend to do well; I find their content to be consistently more well curated than that of their competitors.  Nevertheless, in terms of enjoyment it can’t compare to the Wired of their hardcopy heyday.

Perhaps this says more about me than it does about Wired. I could just be suffering from the kind of nostalgia that seems to be an inevitable by-product of growing old.  Living and working in Silicon Valley in the midst of the dot.com bubble is certainly a suitable target for such nostalgia, though in truth I am far happier now both personally and professionally. Perhaps it was the visceral feel of leafing through the magazine, a sensation that reading things on a screen will never replicate, or perhaps it was that waiting for each month’s issue generated a sense of anticipation that doesn’t track well to the 24/7 stream of content we have come to accept as the norm now.

That being said, the Wired of old has not completely died, and that is the occasion for what is only my second blog post this year.  Every now and then, a feature article like the ones that were their standard fare in the 90’s catches my attention.  I remember the article on the Long Tail, where the term was first coined, back in 2004.  And their article on Stuxnet was another compelling narrative in their inimitable style.  In fairness to Wired, they probably still do a lot more of this kind of writing than I am aware of — they still do publish a print issue, and I am sure it creates a different impression than the one I experience on their RSS feed.  Nevertheless, this morning around 3:00am, in a fit of insomnia-fueled news reading at my African home-away-from home at the Intercontinental Nairobi, I came across a magnificent example of Wired at its best: a tale of the rise and fall of the Silk Road Marketplace.

Cover art for the Wired story, reproduced here without permission

Cover art for the Wired story, reproduced here without permission

Silk Road was a deep-web site available only via the TOR browser, Silk Road operated as an open and unabashed Amazon-like black market, primarily for drugs and guns.  I first became aware of them in mid-2011 through an article in Gawker.  I even set up my own TOR browser so I could visit the site myself and see if it was as blatantly in-your-face about drug dealing and gun running as Gawker claimed; if anything it was worse.  All payments on Silk Road were made via bitcoin, which has been another fascination of mine; from mid 2011 to the site’s inevitable downfall in 2013, the story of of Silk Road was one I followed closely.  Yet knowing most of the facts of the story in advance did not detract one iota from my enjoyment of the article; the writing was that good.  My hat is off to Joshua Bearman and Tomer Hamuka for crafting a truly compelling story. Reading it was pure delight, and their prose is something I am unabashedly envious of.  Anyway, here it is.  Enjoy!

http://www.wired.com/2015/04/silk-road-1/

Link

There are many gaming blogs out there. Some are interesting, some are informative, a very few are both, and many are neither.

My friend Nadine has started one with an interesting twist. Nadine is a talented writer and recent computer science graduate who has decided to enter the world of game development by building her own Flash and/or iOS games. And she has decided to share with us her journey from neophyte to master of the universe. This blog is not about specific games, neither is it a gaming business blog. Instead, it is a personal narrative about coming to grips with what it means to be a successful part of the gaming industry.

Check it out at:

http://infinitearcadegames.com/

 

Gunfire and good sense break out in Nairobi…

So, today was an adventure. There were large political protests here in Nairobi, centered in a park across the street from the hotel where I live. Last week and two weeks ago about 80 people in two coastal villages were killed by armed gangs. Most people attribute this to El Shabab, the Islamic terrorist group responsible for the Westgate Mall attack last year, and many atrocities since then. And by most people, I include both the families of the villagers who were killed and El Shabab itself, who has claimed responsibility. But then the government, who has been embarrassed by their inability to do anything to stop these attacks, tried to claim that the Somalia-based El Shabab was not responsible, an instead pinned the blame on local Kenyan opposition parties trying to force the current ruling party from power.

This egregious claim is what triggered the protest. On the whole, President Kenyatta has been reasonably popular, but the patent absurdity of the government’s official interpretation has pissed a lot of people off, and the main aim of the protest was to let the country’s leadership know that people didn’t believe their story.

Both my office and my client are in very secure sites, but I was not comfortable driving past the site of this protest to get to or from there. So, acting on the advice that I just posted in this blog, I decided to be respectful and work from my room today. As result, I had the opportunity to observe this protest for most of the day.

I am not very good at counting large numbers of people, but I would estimate there were about 5,000 people gathered in the park across the street. The protest was noisy — many vuvuzelas were put to good use today — and I had a chance to observe a lot of it from my hotel room. It remained peaceful throughout the day; the police seemed wary but respectful.

A noisy, yet peaceful throng

A noisy, yet peaceful throng

But then, around 18:00 local time a large number of people started walking towards the Supreme Court building, and gunshots rang out. I counted a total of eight shots; they sounded like they came from a pistol rather than an automatic weapon. These shots were not followed by any screaming, panic, or other excitement. Just the contrary, everyone seemed to calm down and disperse, the police as well as the protesters. My surmise was that the police had fired shots into the air as a way of telling the crowd to disperse.

My hotel went immediately into lockdown; I continue to be impressed by the efficiency and professionalism of their security team. The hotel’s security manager phoned me and confirmed my interpretation that the gunshots were fired into the air to disperse the crowd, but said they did not want to take any chances. About an hour later, the crowd had fully dispersed, the police were gone, and the lockdown was lifted.

A large group of storks stood by, observing passively from the nearby trees, ready in case their services were called for,

A large group of storks stood by, observing passively from the nearby trees, ready in case their services were called for.

What was interesting to me about today was how smoothly it all came off. Everyone I observed or spoke with throughout the day: protesters, police, hotel staff, IBM colleagues, and clients, handled what could have been a very difficult day with grace and professionalism. All it would have taken is a single stupid act from just one person on any side of the confrontation, and things could have gotten very ugly very quickly. But nobody did anything stupid. Everyone behaved, and nobody got hurt. Score one for humanity today. I wish I could say that more often.

A well-intentioned, truly horrific idea…

World Organisation for Early Childhood EducationMy good friend Cate Meehan, who serves as the faculty director for early childhood at Canterbury Christ Church University is in Ireland this week, attending the annual conference of the World Organization for Early Childhood Education, or OMEP as it is known by its French acronym. I always look forward to it when Cate attends a conference. She is very good at picking which conferences and which sessions to attend.  Invariably, she garners exposure to a treasure trove of ideas both new and old, and she excels at evaluating these ideas critically and integrating the ones that pass muster into her ongoing work.

Today though, she forwarded to me a link to a very specific idea, or more accurately, to an organization that is dedicated to the pursuit of this idea. Cate knows me very well, and I’m assuming she sent me this link because she knew how I would react. The idea is unequivocally noble, and I have no doubt that the people who founded the organization did so with the best and purest of intentions. But it is precisely those good intentions that make the idea so terrifying, and I’d like to share it with you.

The link she sent me was to a project called the Endangered Languages Project, sponsored by an organization called the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity. To quote from their web site:

The mission of the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity is to accelerate, strengthen and catalyze efforts around endangered language documentation, to support communities engaged in protecting and revitalizing their languages, and to raise awareness about ways to address threats to endangered languages.

So why do I find this mission so terrifying? Isn’t diversity a good thing?
Diversity is undoubtedly a good thing. And while I don’t have a stack of peer-reviewed evidence at hand, my sense is that most competent scientists and business people have rich first-hand experience on the immense value diversity brings to any team-delivered endeavor. Amongst many other benefits, diversity is one of the single most effective mitigants to the risk of groupthink. And since language is surely one of the richest repositories of cultural intelligence that we humans possess, it would stand to reason that letting a language die carries an immense societal cost that we all have to pay. So what’s the problem?

The problem, in a word, is poverty. Have a look at the map that the Endangered Languages Project maintains. It is very well executed, and clearly communicates on one well-designed page the plight of many of these threatened tongues. But look closely at how these threatened languages are distributed. Without exception, the densest clusters of endangered languages are found amongst the poorest areas of the globe. People in these regions live in such dire poverty that even those of us who work in the developing world could not begin to comprehend what it means to live under such oppressive misery. This correlation between a high concentration of endangered languages and abject poverty is far from coincidental.

What does it take to get out of poverty? Myriad opinions exist on this of course, but surely some of the critical success factors would include education, financial inclusion, and the opportunity to engage in some kind of commerce or income-earning activity. In our lifetimes, we have seen innovations in all three of these areas that have changed the face of the world forever.  According to the World Bank, the percentage of people in the developing world living in extreme poverty has fallen from 43% in 1990 to about 21% now (see source here).  In other words, since the dawn of the internet, the number of people in extreme poverty has been cut in half.  Fantastic news. But here’s the catch: access to these poverty-killing innovations is almost completely restricted to those who are able to speak one of the world’s major trade languages. Consider some specific examples:

  • Khan AcademyEducation. The work being done by the Khan Academy is truly revolutionary and surely ranks with electricity, contraception and the internet as a world-changing innovation. But Khan Academy and other projects like it are only available in languages that are in wide enough use to make it a worthwhile endeavor to translate the huge amount of content.
  • EQUITY-LOGOFinancial Inclusion. Micro-lending is a life-changer around the world, and increasingly, traditional banks and lending institutions, like my client Equity Bank, are finding that providing capital to those who have never had access to it before is an invaluable addition to their business model. But once again, gaining access to even micro-lending sources is gated by the ability to have
    a conversation with, or read a contract provided by,
    the capital provider.
  • EtsyCommercial Opportunity. Today’s digital market place gives every craftsman with a smartphone the ability to sell their wares around the world. Cruise Etsy some time and see how many people from the far-flung corners of the world are offering the work of their own hands. And despite this proliferation, the emergence of the digital marketplace is still nascent. In my time here, I’ve shown Etsy to six Kenyan artisans and shop owners . They had never heard of it, but they know it now.  Within two weeks, four of them
    emailed me back within two weeksasking to take a look at the sites they had set up.  but youhave to know English to use it.

So you see, knowing a major trade language, like English, Mandarin, Spanish, or French is an absolute requirement to be able to access these poverty-killing innovations. Those who cannot speak or read one of these trade tongues are utterly condemned to a life of every increasing misery and despair.

But surely it is not an either-or proposition? In many countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, the ability to speak three or more languages is actually the norm. The issue, though, is that education is a zero sum game. Not in terms of money — education still offers the best return of any investment you can make in a human life — but in terms of time. In 2012 I had the opportunity to visit Runan Wan, a rural, impoverished school in Yunnan province in southern China. Many of the children who attended this school had to walk over two hours each way for the privilege of attending. The meal they received at the school was often the only full meal they were likely to receive that day.

Teaching the students of Runan Wan how to play Spoons

Most of the students and teachers at this school were from the Naxi ethnic group, as was the principal. I had a conversation with this principal, and asked him what percentage of the time they spent learning the Naxi language. He replied “None. Most of these students will stop school at year six. Every hour of education they receive is precious to them, and every hour spent on something that won’t help them improve their lives is a lost opportunity they will never get the chance to regain.”

So yes, I understand that letting these languages die has a huge cultural cost. And I am all for spending time, money, and effort to document and archive these languages, so that we can preserve as much as we can of the rich cultural heritage they contain. And anyone in a wealthy country who wants to learn Cornish or Basque as a hobby will undoubtedly discover huge cultural riches by doing so. But spending a poor student’s precious allotment of time in school on a language that bars them access to the amazing panoply of poverty-killing innovations today’s world has on offer is putting them in chains far stronger than iron.

 

Is it safe?

This is probably the most frequent question I get when I tell people I am working in Kenya.  The string of terrible bombings and shootings in Kenya makes news all around the world.  I also travel to Nigeria on a regular basis, and the horrific abductions of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram are even worse.  So it is entirely reasonable to wonder what it’s like to actually work here, and whether it is as horrific as the media reports make it out to be.

Unlicensed taxi

Intended and actual destination may vary.

To start with, I can honestly say that at no point since I arrived here have I felt in physical danger.  I have been offered dubious taxi rides, shaken down for bribes by police, and received all manner of offers from attractive, unattached women to go places that would not be likely to benefit my long-term health.  But aside from being given the opportunity to decline some monumentally stupid ideas, I have at never actually had my safety threatened.

You might ask, “Isn’t it scary knowing that kind of danger could always be just around the corner?”  The best way I know to answer that is with a metaphor:  I once had a conversation with a guy who trains lions, tigers, and other big cats for a living.  I asked him if it was scary working every day with animals who could eviscerate him in the blink of an eye, simply because they happened to be in a bad mood that day.  He told me that the key to not living in fear was developing a strong sense of respect.  “Never forget what the cats are capable of, have that respect guide your interactions always, and just enjoy their amazing presence.”

So how does that respect manifest on a day-to-day basis?  It starts with learning some basic ground rules.  Don’t walk outside after dark.  Only book a taxi from your hotel or some other trusted source.  Never use an ATM that isn’t inside a secure building.  The first time you go someplace new, go with someone trustworthy who is familiar with the area.  It doesn’t take long for these kind of considerations to become second nature.  In many respects it is like being an American, going to the UK, and driving a car on the wrong side of the road for the first time.  Initially quite daunting, but over a surprisingly short period of time, you adapt and get on with your life.  We humans are astonishingly good at that.

Security barrier at my hotel

There is an important caveat to the perspective I just shared, which is that my professional life in Nairobi unfolds in a series of very secure locations.  My hotel, my office, and my client sites are protected by both hefty physical measures and professional, decently trained security teams.

Not to be trifled with.

Many people, both foreigners and locals live in communities that do not share the same level of security, and burglars in Kenya are no joke: they usually operate in heavily armed gangs of 8-12 people and violence is their first resort in the event of meeting any resistance.  For anyone thinking of living in Africa, I can’t stress enough that choosing a secure place to live is the single most important choice you will make in your time here.

A very common sight

On the other hand, dire warnings like that only throw in sharp relief how delightful Kenyan people are.  Kenya is far more unsafe for locals than it is for foreigners, yet despite all the troubles they endure, most Kenyans are resolutely happy, friendly, and delighted to engage.  Mind you, I’ve lived in the UK for the past decade, so saying that people are socially outgoing compared to Brits is damning with faint praise, but even compared to my native California, people here tend to be cheerful, social, and welcoming.

So to answer the original question, is it safe?  By any objective standard, the answer would have to be no, but that is no reason to shy away from the experience. The metaphor of training big cats is once again a very apt one.  Imagine having the opportunity to interact with a fully grown tiger.  Most of us would not turn down the chance, but we would also treat the situation with the caution and respect it deserved.  Thus it is with living and working in Kenya. Maintain a healthy respect, and savour what a delightful experience you are having.

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Okay, maybe my metaphor wasn’t completely hypothetical

 

 

Machetes and Solar Panels

One of the first things I like to do when entering any new country is pay a visit to a nearby supermarket; a stroll down the aisles provides a unique and informative view of the country and the people who call it home.

So it was that when I first arrived in Nairobi, I stopped in at the Nakumatt on Koinage Street in the city center, not far from my home at the Intercontinental Hotel.  And in a back corner on the upper storey of this two-floor supermarket, something quite curious caught my eye.  Not far from the cleaning rags and power strips, there was a loose clutter of machetes on sale.  And next to the machetes were offered a collection of solar panels of various sizes and power configurations.

machetes and solar panels

Regular household necessities

This tickled my sense of irony.  I took a blurry snapshot of the pairing and made a humorous post on my Facebook page.  But as I came to spend more time in Nairobi, and began to get a better appreciation of its people and culture, I came to realize that this strange juxtaposition was an astoundingly apt metaphor for life in this part of the world.
If you stroll into a Safeway in the US or a Tesco in the UK, I can guarantee that you will find neither machetes nor solar panels for sale.  One is too primitive; it would be viewed as a weapon rather than a tool. The other is too advanced; western consumers have yet to insist on the kind of empowerment they would need to wean themselves of dependence on utility companies, that empowerment is a necessity of survival here.  Judging by empirical evidence, it would appear that US and UK supermarkets deploy their limited shelf space more profitably by offering us a greater choice of potato chip and breakfast cereal flavors than you could find here.

That theme of shudderingly primitive and astonishingly advanced permeates Kenyan life.  For instance, Kenya is the world leader in mobile payment systems, both in terms of technology and penetration.  Not the leader in Africa.  Not the leader amongst developing countries.  The world leader.  No other country comes close, not even advanced countries with otherwise high technology penetration rates like Singapore, Korea, or the countries of Scandinavia (I’ll do a full post on MPesa and the unique market conditions that caused it to grow and flourish soon).  But this breathtaking level of innovation is often limited to areas of narrow focus, and conditions beyond those margins are truly barbaric; the other day, for example, I learned from my bosses Katharyn and Sreeram that the number of mobile phone users here exceeds the number of toilet paper users.

So there you have it.  A microcosm of life in Kenya.  Machetes and solar panels.  On sale at a Nakumatt near you.