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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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/

 

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

 

 

Leavetaking

Tomorrow I set out on the grand adventure.  Today I will spend with my family for the last time in five weeks.  I am missing them already.

Quartz – a new online news publication

I have for the past week or two been following the rollout of a brand new news publication called Quartz.  It is backed by the same company that publishes The Atlantic, and the small staff has an impressive journalistic pedigree.

The publication is targeted at and optimized for mobile phones, tablets, and readers first and foremost, rather than as an afterthought. The business model is radical, and by no means secure, as Jean-Louis Gassee points out in his delightful Monday Note blog. All of this is interesting to me intellectually as an observer of evolving media delivery models, but what has me excited is not the delivery method but the quality of the content.

This is some of the most consistently excellent writing I’ve seen in a long time.  The quality of analysis is on par with that of The Economist, but Quartz is not an attempt to imitate The Economist (if it were, I’d probably agree with their editorial position a bit more :-).  Their editorial positions are decidedly less guarded, but written from a position of confidence that feels like it emanates more from experience than ideological certitude.

Given the upcoming deployment, I have particularly been enjoying their series of articles on the impact of the world economic slowdown on China, as well as a recent piece on Bo Xilai, which I did not agree with but thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Have a look for yourselves, and let me know what you think

About our clients…

With our deployment only two weeks away, our team is starting to kick into high gear on research and preparation.  I thought this would be an opportune time to tell you a bit about our clients and the work we will be doing.

As I have written, there are a total of twelve of us on Team China 18, coming from nine different countries.  We will be working with a total of six clients during our four-week engagement.  The twelve of us have been divided into three sub-teams of four people each, each of which will be looking after two clients.

I am on Subteam 3, along with my colleagues Brett, Martin, and Renata.  Brett is a technical architect from the US; he works in IBM’s consulting business like I do.  Martin is a security specialist from Slovakia, and Renata is an attorney from Brazil.

The first of our two clients will be the Fanya Metals Exchange.  They are a brand new, started only a year ago with the intent of becoming a commodities exchange like those in Chicago or London.  As some of you know, most commodities futures and option contracts traded on an exchange are purely financial instruments.  But many of the buyers and sellers trading metals on Fanya’s exchange are miners or manufacturers, so a much higher percentage of their contracts are settled in specie — in other words, they are paid in the actual, physical metals that the contracts represent.

Fanya has done very well in its first year, and would like to continue expanding and become a regional player, trading not only across China but throughout southeast Asia, and they have asked for our advice on how best to go about that.  To provide this kind of insight, we will be putting together a case study on the business and marketing models of some of the world’s major commodities exchanges, and advising them on how best to emulate the success and growth patterns that some of these have enjoyed.

The other client is a financial clearing house for small and medium business called KMfex.  China does not have a well-established market for commercial credit, so most small businesses looking for a loan need to look for individual investors.  The goal of KMfex is to create a clearing house where businesses and investors can find one another.  Like Fanya, KMfex wants us to put together a case study of companies in other regions who have enjoyed success with a similar business model.

In a lot of ways KMfex reminds me of Lloyds of London in the 1600’s and 1700’s.  At that time, the only “corporations” in existence were shipping companies, and if you wanted to invest in their voyages, you had to make contact directly.  There was a coffee shop not far from the docks called Lloyds where a lot of the ship owners and captains would hang out, and wealthy individuals looking for ships to invest in would often go to Lloyd’s in order to find a suitable ship and voyage.  Over a period of several decades, what began as a coffee shop transformed into something entirely new: the world’s first true financial market.  KMfex is in a different country and services general businesses instead of shipping companies, and its distribution channels are online rather than at a coffee shop.  But in most of the important ways, they are very much like Lloyd’s was when it started: a clearing house that made it easier for companies and investors to find one another.  I expect that many of the successes and failures Lloyds has experienced over time, including the massive “Names” scandal of the 1980’s could end up being quite relevant in terms of advising them.

So there you have it: a brief synopsis of what I will be up to very soon.  In addition to working with these two clients, I expect to also be helping to advise and support the other subteams, just as I am sure we will be able to rely upon their expertise and support for our two clients.  There are also a couple of one-day events that the entire team will be participating in; I’ll tell you more about these as the time gets nearer.

It’s less than two weeks now until we take to the skies…

Reflections on the life of M. C. Escher

Hello everyone.  It’s been several weeks now since I’ve last blogged.  As some of you know, I’ve spent the past several weeks in The Hague helping out with a troubled project here, and the needs of this project have required my entire focus.  I’ve had to temporarily set aside my day job to focus on this project full time, and while I have still been able to meet the basic needs of CSC preparation and take a little bit of time to work with our team on some preliminary research, there has been very little mindshare for some of the more extended research that I had been blogging about earlier.

There is, in fact, a lot to write about, and I hope to be able spend some time this weekend telling you all about the clients we have been assigned, our initial discussions with them, and the work we’ve been asked to perform in our very short four week engagement.  But today, I am in The Hague, and I am going to write about one of its most famous artists: M. C. Escher.

Like many children who went on to become technologists or academics, Escher’s prints and drawings have captivated and delighted me from a very young age.  I can easily remember sitting for hours just staring at such masterpieces as Relativity, Belvedere, and Drawing Hands.  The Hague is the capital of the Netherlands, home to many monuments both modern and historic, and a delightful city in its own right, yet the one thing I knew I wanted to do during my time here was visit the Escher Museum.  But the museum is only open between 11:00 and 17:00 each day, and with as busy as the project has been, it was looking unlikely that I would get the chance.  Today, however, a critical planning meeting had to be postponed until 23:00, leaving me at leisure for the late afternoon and early evening – my chance had arrived and I was certainly not going to let such an opportunity go to waste.  So I packed up my gear, walked a mile or so into the center of town and went in to pay my respects.

Quite a lot has been written about Escher’s art, and about the mathematical and architectural principles embodied in his work (for those of you with any interest I would recommend the excellent Godel, Escher, Bach as one fine exemplar).  I have read a fair bit of such writings, and did not go in expecting to learn a great deal more along these lines.  What I knew far less about was Escher the man, or anything about his life.  And as I sit enjoying a cool autumn evening in a nearby outdoor café, this is what I want to share with you.

In many ways, the story of Escher’s childhood reads like an archetype of the sort of crucible in which great artists are formed.  He grew up the fifth and youngest of five brothers, born to a patriarchal, domineering, and pragmatic father who has selected a career for each of his older siblings based on his own observation of their talents as children.  Escher’s talent for drawing is visible to everyone from a very early age, but his father certainly does not see artist as a stable, respectable, or reliable career choice, so he decides that his youngest son will become an architect.  But this is where the story breaks the mold.  Escher is not the archetypical angry young rebel; he is a charmer, a negotiator, and the many photographs of Escher and his family at the museum testify to a deep and abiding love between him and his entire family.

Yet, while young Maurits has no desire to go against the wishes of his father or be a disappointment to his family, this in no way lessens his determination to pursue his life’s desire of being an artist.  So what he does instead is select a university known for architectural excellence, but also possessed of an outstanding graphic arts program.  He enters the university as an architecture student, but in his first week there he arranges to meet with the head of the graphics art department,  a man named Samuel Jesserum de Mesquita who was very well known and respected, and shows Mesquita his art portfolio.

The professor is as delighted with Escher’s work as we all have become, and tells Escher that he really ought to consider switching his course of study to art.  A series of discussions ensue, the end result of which is that Escher talks the professor into paying his father a visit.  And it is during this visit that he finally wins his father’s agreement that the youngest Escher will become a graphic artist.

Other stories of Escher’s life, most notably how he went about courting his wife, paint a very similar picture: a portrait of a man who is respectful, impeccably polite, and yet quietly subversive and utterly determined to have his way.  And I found, while looking for the first time at the originals of some of my favorite pieces,  that understanding a little bit about Escher’s life brought an entirely new dimension of understanding, joy, and delight to my appreciation of his work.

That inscrutably shy-yet-knowing smile that adorns so many of Escher’s figures is the smile of a man who understands what you have told him, would not dream of arguing with you, much less going against your will, but who knows that regardless of what you may think at the time, his own vision will prevail. This way of approaching the world, respecting it yet at the same time subverting it to his will, shows through not only in Escher’s art and his relationships with people, but in his approach to the universe as a whole, as explained a delightful quote from the artist himself…

In my art I try to show that we live in a beautiful and orderly world, not in formless chaos [yet] I cannot resist fooling around with our established certainties.  It gives me great pleasure, for example, to deliberately mix up the second and third dimensions, flat and spatial, and to make fun of gravity.

In measuring myself against Escher as a man, I find that all too often I end up enamoured of the emotional satisfaction that comes from a successful confrontation. I quite admire Escher’s way of approaching the world.  I wish I were more like him.

Sources:  The images all came from the official Escher website: www.mcescher.com