19 February 2018

Why I quit FaceBook

I posted the following to my FB a day before deleting it forever. I thought I would feel at least a twinge of regret over the lost connections. But I don't - the important friendships are stronger than FaceBook. And people managed to have fun random interactions with folks they'd lost contact with well before any social media came along. We'll all be fine.

I've been thinking a lot about social media lately, especially Facebook and Twitter. Fake news. Russian meddling. My attempts to avoid their algorithms to just see posts chronologically, attempts that have been continually thwarted as they update their settings, telling me they know better than I do what I'm interested in. And how it always comes back to the same place: most of what I see is either stuff I really agree with, in which case I'm likely to chime in happily and will walk away without having learned much, or stuff I vehemently, viscerally disagree with, in which case I'm likely to bull in feeling angry and defensive and will walk away ... also without having learned much.

That's the platform working as intended. After all, what makes FB money? It isn't fostering human connection exactly. It's getting you to interact in SOME fashion, because those numbers of interactions are what they show advertisers. And those two things, increasing interaction vs increasing connection, they look the same enough that it fooled a lot of us for a while. But they aren't the same, they never will be the same, and the fact is that Zuck's public hand-wringing about fixing the platform will never amount to anything more than superficial changes, because the very financial model of the site depends on increasing interaction, and at the scale it's now at, that will always be an incentive at odds with the public good.

Facebook is a wholly unregulated, unsupervised curator of information. A news source with no accountability for the accuracy of its news. A messaging system with no accountability for the harassment inherent in the messages.

It worked ok when it was smaller. If you're linking memebers of communities who already have a lot of shared interests, the Venn diagram of increasing interaction and increasing connection is just about a circle. But as FB got bigger, as the communities who joined became more ideologically diverse, cracks formed. And now whenever I come onto this site, for every update I see that actually tells me about something important to my life, like say a family member's health, I see twenty more links designed to outrage me; the only variable there is whether they are designed to outrage me in the same way as the person who posted it or in the opposite way. But all that ends up just being value signaling, not community building.

Facebook is and will continue to be an irresponsible steward of the vast amounts of information for which so many people have come to rely on it. Every time I log in I'm implicitly supporting its irresponsibility, I'm telling it "Hey, even though I think you're doing a piss poor job, this account is too important to me to lose." And it isn't anymore. FB is no longer the way I want to interact with my friends. Not given what it's costing us.

Once I delete my account, this post along with everything else will disappear, so I'll leave it up for a bit. I'd take it as a kindness if a few people would even share it - it's set to be only visible to my friends, so you shouldn't be bothering anyone that doesn't know me (and advance apologies if that's another setting they've mucked with in the interests of increasing interaction at any cost), and given the aforementioned algorithms there's no reason to think more than a few of you will see this initially.

We'll be in touch. Drop me an email! I'd love to hear from you. And if not, well, all the best. It's been fun.

PS - if you're curious, my approach to Twitter is a bit different. There, after all, the expectation was never about connecting with friends, it was about being pithy and entertaining, so the blight is different. While FB will never cure itself of promoting fake news and fostering discord, Twitter will never not be a place where Nazis get to self-promote. So there, rather than disconnecting, I've refocused my account on amplifying voices of the oppressed.

05 June 2014

Adventures in useless customer service; or, why I use UPS now

A transcript of my recent emails with FedEx:

I am very angry. I am going to try very hard not to be rude in this message, because I know that you, the person reading this, are not personally responsible for making me angry. But I am very angry.

Several days ago, I came home to a door tag saying a delivery had been attempted but no one was home. The signature line was voided. "Fine," I thought, "It says another attempt will be made, but since I'm not home during the day, I'll log on to the site and tell them to hold the package." The next day, I log on to the site and tell you to hold the package. Or at least I try to. Your doortag claims that the site will allow that, but in fact when I created an account and attempted to tell you to hold the package, that option was grayed out, and when I tried to save my changes the site just said "Thanks, delivery will be reattempted." So a couple days later I come home to a new door tag, because sure enough you tried to deliver the package again. Fair enough, not the delivery person's
fault. The doortag again says another attempt will be made.

No further doortags. I waited, assuming there would be a last one, after which you would hold the shipment for some amount of time and I'd have a chance to find it and get it. Still no doortag. So now today I log on and find out that with NO FINAL ATTEMPT AT DELIVERY you have decided that the delivery has failed, and never having given me the option to pick up my package, you have no choice but to return to sender.

I am very angry.
Thank you for your email. We regret any inconvenience you experienced with this shipment.
According to our records, the package is on a return-to-shipper status. As the package is already in transit back to the sender, please contact your shipper to make arrangements should you need the package re-shipped to you.
We appreciate your patience on this matter, and thank you for shipping with FedEx.
Yes, thank you, I am aware it is being returned, that is what I am upset about. I have been in touch with the sender and he will re-ship once the package returns to him. What reference number should I give him to ensure he is not charged a second time for shipping given that the failure to deliver was declared even though no final attempt was made?
Thank you for contacting FedEx. We regret any inconvenience.
According to our records, this shipment was returned to the sender on June 5, 2014, at 8:37 AM, and was signed for by [redacted]. With regard to your billing inquiry, kindly contact our Revenue Services department at 800-622-1147 for assistance. Their hours of operation are 7:00 AM - 8:00 PM Central Time, Monday to Friday, and from 7:00 AM - 6:00 PM Central Time on Saturday.
June 5th. 2pm. This will likely be my last communication.
I tried. Oh, how I tried. I told them. I told them what was wrong. They said to call someone else. I told them again. Same non-response. WHY WON'T THEY LISTEN? Now it's getting closer. I may get this email out. There won't be time for more. No more emails. No more FedEx packages. Ever. May god save us all. If only they had listened. They could have fixed it. Ended this. But they didn't. And now...oh no, it heard me typing. It's comi[MESSAGE ENDS]

I worked very hard on that first email. It went through several drafts, over the course of which the curse words and recriminations were mostly culled, though apparently I still couldn't restrain myself from a bit of caps lock.

The last email was much easier to write, knowing that the customer support agents are either incapable of providing helpful responses or are simply not allowed to.

23 June 2013

My cat is ridiculous … and allergic to onions

A couple nights ago, a coworker threw a party (at my boss's house, because that's how international development workers roll). We played the "Hat Game," which if you aren't familiar with, hit me up - best party game ever. But it's not the focus of this post.

My task for the party was to bring sandwich fixings, guacamole, and bread.

First off, shout out to my awesome girlfriend who gave me some ready-made green chili enchilada sauce that I thought would be awesome to add to guac. I actually hesitated to use it, because I thought she might be sad that I used it for a party rather than for myself (she gave it to me because she knows how rarely I cook when alone), but then I realized how silly I was being, and that any use that made me smile would make her glad she gave it to me - she's awesome like that. (Also, I now have a ton of guac for myself that didn't get eaten at the party. So, win-win. And here ends the part of the post where I make the reader sick with how cute we are.)

But for sandwiches, I cut up tomatoes and onions. Now, onions in this country are FIERCE - cut up 2 onions and it's like you've watched "Turner and Hooch." Any more than that and you've gone full emo.

So I'm in the kitchen screaming obscenities at my eyes trying to stop them from crying (not effective, FYI), and my cat comes in to see what all the commotion is about. She lasts about two minutes before she starts sneezing uncontrollably. After a few minutes of that, she leaves. Hence my assumption that she's allergic to onions.

However, she's also ridiculous - she cannot STAND to know there is someone in the house but not in the same room. So about five minutes after fleeing the onions, she starts crying from the other room. "I know you're in there!!" And after three or four minutes of that, she recognized that just crying wasn't getting my attention - so she came *back* into the kitchen to make sure I knew she was there.

Of course, she immediately started sneezing again. But that didn't stop her from plopping down at my feet for a few minutes to make sure I knew she was there - until she couldn't take the sneezing anymore, then she sauntered back into the other room. Where she commenced crying again. Until she couldn't take it anymore ….

All in all, over the course of an hour, she came back into the kitchen seven or eight times. Sneezing the entire time she was in there. Crazy, lovable cat.

31 May 2013

Oh, right, I still technically have a blog....

As noted in my last post of a scant six months ago (!), I went on a trip. The trip was amazing! If you'd like to know all about it ... well, call me, I guess. If you'd like to know about half of it or so, you can check out the blog I linked to.

A bit after New Year's, I decided to make a not-exactly-resolution-but-at-least-a-semi-firm commitment to posting to my Twitter feed development or Burkina news at least once a day. In reality, I'm posting about once every three days, and usually about inane things like how much my car might sell for.

Short version: I fail at social media.

But oh well, because right now I have not one, but TWO inane stories to tell, and that's way too much for Twitter. So they go here instead!


In much of West Africa, Burkina y compris, the word plaisanterie refers not just to joking around in general, but to the particular phenomenon of paired ethnic groups calling each other "esclaves", "slaves." It takes a bit for someone from the southern US to get used to. But I did. It's actually a very interesting topic; I have a friend who wanted to do his PhD research on it. People from one ethnic group will only do it with people from certain other ethnic groups. It is an equalizer - a flat broke farm worker could make this kind of joke with a minister and get away with it (er, probably). I heard a story once (anecdote warning!) about a guy who was getting robbed at knife point, but recognized the other guy's ethnicity, and told the robber he couldn't rob him because he was his slave, and the guy laughed, agreed, and left. My girlfriend has a great plaisanterie story, that I'm not going to steal even though I want to....

So today I'm in a meeting. One of my colleagues, who always gets a kick out of the family name I took in village, Dabilgou, insisted on calling me by it all morning. Another colleague, who was a bit newer and hadn't heard it before, looked at me very seriously and said, "'Dabilgou' isn't a Mossi name, is it? No, it must be Gourmantché." Colleague 1 assured him that it is Mossi. Colleague 2 looked at me again and said, "No, it's Gourmantché, it must be, right?" I said, no, it is in fact Mossi. He said "Oh, that's too bad. Because, you see, I'm Sané, so I wanted to give you the chance to say it was Gourmantché, so you wouldn't be my slave."

FIVE YEARS it took to get one of those jokes aimed at me. Worth it.

[EDIT: I forgot the end of the story. I held his hand to show my appreciation of his joke. Because that is what you do here. Also, stay tuned to see if I have to correct what might be a pretty embarrassing pronoun error!]

Curses in Ouaga2000

An expat I know who lives in Ouaga2000 is certain that she is being cursed. Weird objects appear in the road outside of her home. Chickens with their throats cut. Canaris (clay pots) filled with random objects. Right in the middle of the road. Curses seem a pretty good explanation. Especially when you are extremely rich by local standards.

But of course, you can also actually ask people. Someone (not me) did. Turns out, those things are indeed related to wok magic, but they're not curses, they're GOOD luck. For the person doing it, it's not directed at anyone else. It's to do with when a car hits it, the good luck gets scattered into the world, or something like that. So why do it in the rich neighborhood? Because no one will steal it there.

I don't think I'll tell my friend. This way's more fun.

01 November 2012

Just in case you missed it

I don't know if anyone is paying attention to this blog since I update so infrequently anyway, but just in case you're wondering what my latest excuse is for not doing so, it's that I'm kind of busy traveling around the globe with my girlfriend. To follow us, check out The Long Trail Home.

30 May 2012

An email exchange

Saw this in my inbox this morning [reproduced with permission from Mom]:

       Just saw on world news that your area is needing rain and children are dying due to drought. Didn't you say the rains came early, often and hard just a few weeks ago ? Can you direct where we should send funds? It was heart-breaking to watch.
         You're OK, right ? Film footage was not in B.F., but the map highlighted there.
                  Please reply asap. mom

Thanks Mom! It's nice to know people are worried. The situation here IS bad. Here is my response [reproduced with permission from me]:

I need to preface this by saying that humanitarian aid is not my field. I am at best tangentially aware of those kinds of activities happening here, so my advice is based on a weird amalgam of rumor, second-hand recommendations, and web research. All of which is to say that if you hear of something you think may be better, don't discount it just because I didn't mention it.

The problem is not so much the drought this year as it is that there were not enough rains LAST year, so not enough food was produced to hold people over until the crops can be brought in this season (which won't be until around late June for the first round of corn, late July for the first rounds of millet and sorghum...so even if the rains continue well this year, some people will be literally starving until then). The problem is made much worse by the refugees from Mali, who are an extra drain on production since obviously they can't feed themselves. So yes, while the rains are so far ok here this year (though unseasonably early, which is not an unmitigated positive), many people's stores are empty, forcing them to buy, and food prices are up. Not everyone can afford it. There is a popular movement here called "la vie chère" that in situations like this hosts protest marches. In past years, those marches have sometimes become violent. So far that hasn't happened this year, but everyone knows it is a possibility.

The good news is that a lot of aid is coming in for the refugees, from the UN, from individual countries (including the US), and from NGOs. The bad news is that there is so much focus on aid for the refugees that less assistance is available for Burkinabé than would normally be the case in such a famine. Besides being bad for obvious reasons, that's also a source of potential conflict. Note that while I'm speaking about Burkinabé because I live here, the same situation is unfolding in Niger, Mali itself (though because of the ongoing conflict, aid is mostly blocked), Mauritania, and Algeria. Chad is also suffering from the famine, though I don't believe they have a Malian refugee population exacerbating the problem.

If you would like to help the refugee populations:

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is working in the camps in Niger (and maybe elsewhere):
http://crs.org/niger/sahel-crisis-helping-refugees-in-niger/ (Donate link at top)
They also have general food assistance programs in the region, though I don't know whether they have anything in place specifically addressing the current famine.

The ICRC is working in camps in Burkina, Niger, and Mali:

To donate: http://www.icrc.org/eng/donations/index.jsp

The UN hosts a site that collects refugee news. The Burkina page is found at:

That is probably a good place to get more information than I can gather in this brief note.

To assist non-displaced populations who are suffering from the famine, the big hitters are:
Oxfam, with whom I have never worked but about whom I have never heard anything but very good things:
(Donate link at top right)

The IFRC (and I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of the Red Cross collaborations, so I don't really know how different this is from the ICRC above. I just know that what we call here "the Red Cross" is working both in the camps and with indigenous Burkinabé):
(donate link is first option in "Get Involved" drop-down menu)

The World Food Programme (a UN aid agency) has activities pretty much anywhere there is hunger. I've heard them described as bureaucratic and somewhat inefficient (again, I've never worked with them so cannot give a personal opinion), but they are EVERYWHERE, and there's something to be said for that - they have a lot of leverage when working with host governments.

(donate online link in "Get Involved" drop-down menu here, too).

A good general resource on humanitarian aid is irinnews.org. For instance: http://www.irinnews.org/Country/BF/Burkina-Faso

USAID funds a famine-specific news source, which is good for climate monitoring and understanding the full situation of food insecurity in the region (but does not address your specific question of funding aid efforts):

I wish I knew more, but I'm pretty confident in at least those recommendations. In fact, I am going to reproduce this email on my blog. Do you mind if I copy your email, too, to give it context?


With that, I will now go off to other places and invite my very knowledgeable friends to add to and/or correct the advice here. Also, I apologize for the ugly formatting, but I am in a hurry so just using Blogger's native options. When I come back in to report on my friends' ideas, perhaps I'll also have the chance to pretty this up.

16 April 2012

News roundup: Mali

For those interested, I just posted a summary to MetaFilter of several current articles on the Mali situation, and I put enough effort into it that I thought I'd post it here as well.

Completely unsurprisingly, the situation in Mali is kind of dominating the news here in Burkina. Here are some of the articles published today for the francophones, and synopses in English for the rest:

Summary of the negotiations this weekend: about eighty Malians participated, representing the elected government, the junta, and civilian leaders. The two topics were a roadmap to power transition and the Tuareg rebellion. As for the former, they will stick to the agreement from April 6th which puts Traoré in power and makes anyone participating in the transitional government ineligible in the next elections, but whether the transition period will be only forty days as originally agreed will depend on the resolution of the rebellion. As to that resolution, all agree it needs to include humanitarian aid as soon as possible. They call for the immediate "restoration of the integrity of the territory" (read here: surrender of the rebels), saying everyone participating should remember their "duty to protect the civilian populations," lay down their arms, and look for "republican" solutions.

Slightly more detail on the structure of the agreement, which is broken out into 17 recommendations focusing on three main points: ending the rebellion (this section uses the exact same language as the above article); transitioning power by recognizing the 6th April agreement, creating a "national unity government," and creating new ministerial departments to focus on humanitarian efforts; and creating some sort of monitoring body, overseen by an international mediator.

This article discusses the wider political impact of the choice of a mediator, mentioning that the representative of the interim Mali government at the weekend talks asked that the Mauritanian president participate in negotiations with the Tuaregs (that's the same guy as in this article (cheers, nangar) last link, where he explicitly says he's open to the establishment of a new country, but adds that he is ready to commit troops to fight the terrorists of AQMI, inviting European intervention as well). The author expresses some doubt that Aziz and Compaoré (the president of Burkina Faso, and current mediator between the junta and constitutional authorities, nominated by ECOWAS) will work well together but notes that Mauritanian involvement may be beneficial given their nearer geographic proximity to the territories being fought over.

Here's a discussion of the humanitarian crisis caused by the Tuareg rebellion, or at least of the difficulty in addressing it. Ansar Dine has announced that they will open corridors to humanitarian aid - as long as said aid is "halal"; that is, from Islamic nations only. They won't accept any aid from Europe or the US. The author speculates that they may be concerned that any corridors they open will become routes for gun-trafficking. He or she then says that Ansar Dine is being hypocritical because they already use Western technology, and that in any case they should focus on accepting any aid that feeds the hungry in their territory if they want any claim to legitimacy. The conclusion of the article is that if they hold to this demand, they are planting the seeds of their own destruction, when hunger overcomes fear.

The Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs came to Burkina Saturday to offer the king's support to Compaoré toward ending the Mali conflict. He also offered monetary support for humanitarian aid to the Malian refugees in Burkina.

So, yeah. A lot of interested parties are talking with each other. But so far not with the Tuaregs.

11 April 2012

I attended a management training

The topic of role playing came up. This is what I hoped would happen:

It didn't. So I drew this instead.

08 April 2012


Wow, I really don't update this blog very much these days. Blame Facebook. I've been meaning for the last couple days to write something. I've got a fun idea. I'm going to tell the story of my life in a way that is 100% true and entirely misleading. Kind of like that game Two Truths and a Lie, only no lies. That will have to wait though.

Because this evening a Burkinabe friend stopped by, and he said some things I need to make sure are documented for posterity. He's a young guy who used to be a guard at the Peace Corps transit house. He stops by occasionally to chit chat. A couple of times I've lent him my moto, and he's unreasonably grateful about it. So much so that I get embarrassed when he talks about it, and I don't get embarrassed easily*.

As I said, he stopped by this evening. Lucky he did, otherwise he'd have gotten caught in the rain** on his way home.

My friend started talking to me about his life growing up, a topic that had never really come up before. Turns out his mom had him when she was 16, so they were both kind of raised by HER mom, his grandma. He didn't really have a father figure. (The subtext of this conversation, by the way, goes back to how great I am for letting him borrow my bike. See? EMBARRASING.) Now here's where the story gets weird - when he was talking about not having a dad and what he never got that other kids did, he never ONCE mentioned love, or a helping hand, or pride, or anything like that. Nope! Apparently, what he missed out on (and seemed sincerely to regret missing) was someone to tell him when he was wrong, someone to tell him he was gonna get beat if he didn't straighten up.

That was not the weirdest part of the conversation. It got weirder. He started talking about people being kind to each other, and how you shouldn't be mean because if you are then the people you are mean to will be mean to others; same thing for being good to others. (This is STILL all him expressing gratitude. EM. BAR. RAS. SING.) Ok, I can dig all that. But then he busts out this proverb to express it (it's a Djoula proverb, if anyone's interested): "When the sorcerer eats a baby, he'll forget it as soon as it's time to go look for his next meal. But the baby's father*** won't ever forget."

What a weird conversation.

*Especially when the topic is me, and ESPECIALLY when the topic is how great I am.
**Rain! The third in a week! In April. This is too late for the mango rains, too soon for the real ones. I hope it means the season is very wet, but I'm worried it will be even more unpredictable, which is no good to anyone.
***He said the proverb a couple times, and he used the words "père" and "proprietaire" interchangeably. I can't help but think that word choice is pretty intimately tied to his views on fatherhood as implied by his earlier comments.

21 November 2011

New post, new design

I hadn't played with Blogger's templates in quite some time. They've got some nice ones! This one seemed like a good fit. I also removed the striking of "Peace Corps" in the title. As the current Country Director mentioned to me, just because I returned (for a given value of "returned") doesn't mean I'm not part of the Peace Corps family anymore.

Fair point, and it's a good lead in to today's post, which is the story of an event that happened during my service that came up in discussion last night. The discussion was about resistance to change.

One day, I visited my neighbor Pete in Boulsa, his site and my provincial capital. I went there every couple months to get supplies like mayonnaise and margarine - things I couldn't get in my own village. Pete was always a great host, and with few exceptions I generally spent a night or two there when I went. We often ended up cooking something that I wouldn't have the ingredients for in village and he wouldn't have the energy to do alone (I think we can all agree, cooking for one is really a hassle). This particular day, we decided we wanted hamburgers. That wouldn't have been possible weeks earlier, but one of the kiosk restaurants in town had recently purchased a meat grinder and was selling sandwiches. I headed over to bargain over the price of ground meat.

When I get there, it's some guy I'd never seen before. I roll up, we go through the usual salutations, and I ask him if they have meat today*.
"Yes," he says, "we've got some today."
"Great!" I reply. "I'd like to buy some."
"How many sandwiches do you want?"
"No, sorry, that's not what I meant. I just want to buy some meat. How much would it cost for the amount of meat you'd put into two sandwiches?"
He gives me a panicked look. "We don't sell meat. We sell sandwiches."
"I know," I respond gently, "but you could just sell me the meat too, right?"
"No. We sell sandwiches."
"Listen," I say, "You sell coffee here. With the coffee you use bread. So it's not like you won't use the bread I'm not buying. You'll still make your profit. You don't have to sell me the meat at cost, mark it up the same way you would for a sandwich**, and in fact you even make a little more because I don't want you to cook it!"
"Not ... cook ... no ... br - no, sorry, we don't do that."
"Please? It's really easy to do."
"Ok, I'll go ask the owner, I guess, but I think he'll say no."
"Thank you!"

He disappears around a corner, and reappears a few minutes later.

"No, sorry," he says, "I can't sell you the meat like that. I can only sell sandwiches.***"
I'm pretty frustrated by now. And hungry. "Well, that doesn't make any sense, but since I can't change your mind and I need to eat, I guess I'll buy two sandwiches. How much?"
"Sorry," he says, "but I can't sell you a sandwhich."
"We're out of bread."

*Note to anyone thinking about living in West Africa: this is ALWAYS the first step when ordering something at a restaurant. It drove my brother nuts when I visited home and at nearly every restaurant we went to, he'd ask me what I wanted and I'd tell him my first choice and my three backup plans in case they didn't have that. "David," he'd sigh, "yet again, I assure you, they have it."

**With a bit more understanding of the inner workings of business here, I realize how hopelessly unlikely it was that the server would have any understanding of the kiosk's pricing model. In fact, there's a 90% chance the owner himself didn't really track it; he probably set the prices based on what someone somewhere else was charging and assumed that at some point he'd realize his profit. This is a typical amount of bookkeeping for many of the illiterate/mostly innumerate entrepreneurs here, and is one of the biggest constraints on small-scale economic growth. If I joined the Peace Corps again, it would probably be as a Small Enterprise Development volunteer.

***I also realize in retrospect that there's a very good chance the owner was nowhere around, and the guy just went around the corner for appearance's sake. Third partying me when no third party was available. Ah, l'Afrique.