31 December 2006

NYE gaming

I am generally a little confused by NYE and how to mark the day, and often I will have a party, but I'm still recovering (and cleaning) from my party last Saturday. So this year I'm going to actually accept an invitation that's landed in my inbox for a few years now. I went to a Fourth of July version a few years ago, but apparently the tradition for the hosts started with NYE. It's the 19th annual NYE gaming party, hosted by Pavel and Kathleen.

I've met Pavel a few times over the years -- our paths crossed from MUD and MOO days. And when he first relocated from Silicon Valley to Seattle I managed to corral him for a guest lecture in one of my classes. (As I recall, his house was flooding during the lecture, but he valiently carried on.)

The 4th of July version that I attended was pretty darn fun, and I remember being introduced for the first time to the game Carcasonne (which until then I knew of only as the medieval walled town in France near which I rented a house with some friends several summers ago), a low-tech, locally produced cardish game with a spy theme (maybe called Secret Agent? I don't quite remember), and some puzzles that made my brain ache.

So this should be fun. My friend and I are going to stop by a Russian themed party (maybe they're serving polonium??) for the first part of the evening, and then onward to games. Seems like a good way to start a new year; I don't do resolutions, but if I did, remembering to play more would be the only resolution I'd be willing to entertain.

29 December 2006

Return of the prodigal kitties

Last year I fostered two kittens for a friend.

It's a slightly complicated story: my habitual pet/house-sitter and friend Matthew, upon the death of my cat, tried to convince me to take in a kitten or two from a litter borne by a stray his family had taken in. I wasn't quite ready to re-catify, so I encouraged him to take them. He wasn't able to have pets where he lived, although he was looking for a new place. So I offered to foster them while he continued his house-hunting. Five months later -- after I got to enjoy all the cuteness of kittens and they had crossed over into the destructive teenage phase -- I handed them off to Matthew and they took up residence in his new condo.

This week they're back.

Matthew headed out of town, and I stuck around trying to piece together a syllabus for a new class on human-computer interaction that I start teaching as of January 4th. So we reversed roles and I became his pet-sitter, and the kittens have returned for a week of vacation at Beth's place.

My god.

Okay. They're cute. Don't get me wrong. They are adorable and sweet and after they got past being freaked out and hiding under my bed for two days, they remembered the tremendous joy of racing full speed up and down the steps (preferably underneath the feet of someone trying to go downstairs).

But good lord are they destructive. They're still kittens at heart, only now they are *lots* bigger. And they clearly have very little concept of their own strength. It's actually great to have them here, but I have had to do quite a bit of sweeping up of shattered bits and mopping up of spilled things. On the other hand, the kitty love at unpredictable hours is pretty darn nice.

If they would stand still long enough, I'd take a picture and post it.

And oh yeah, the HCI class is taking shape, and I'm getting pretty darn excited about teaching it. Links when they're ready.

26 December 2006

Helsinki Santa Rampage

A few weeks ago I sampled a local event, Santarchy. (A few hundred people dressed up as Santa, roaming city streets and partaking in various kinds of revelry). Taken by the charms of Santa Anarchy, I did a little background reading, and found there were similar events in a handful of cities, including -- coincidence! -- Helsinki on the very night I was going to be there. So with some help from someone I ran into at the Seattle version (thanks, Danyel!), I got a hold of the flier with the Helsinki event info and showed up.

The Helsinki version of Santarchy is a little different than the Seattle version. First, the name: Santa Rampage. Second, the scale: a couple dozen guys who all went to school together. But they very graciously got past the "who are you and why are you here??" stage (although they had a harder time getting past the 'How did you find out about us and know to show up at this public park?" stage) and let me tag along as they toured Helsinki, a smaller crowd than Seattle's but no less boisterous. Drinking, bowling, ice skating -- and then, presumably karaoking, but by then there was no way I could keep up with a bunch of Finns drinking.

You can see some photos . And I now have my very own Santa suit, thanks to the very generous, Swedish-speaking Finns of Santa Rampage.

I can now report, by the way, that Finnish bowling is pretty much the same as American bowling (i.e. I was able to bowl equally pitifully in a foreign language), with the exception of completely incomprehensible signage. I know a little bit of a lot of languages, but Finnish had me reduced to utter illiteracy to the point where using a public restroom was anxiety producing. What's the word for 'men'? for 'women'?? Seeing a familiar alphabet but being completely unable to recognize any root words definitely made an impression. Add that to the very few hours of diffused twilight that constitutes "daytime" and this was the most disorienting trip I've taken in quite a while.

12 December 2006

Too long layovers (and a bit on WoW)

Exhausted in the Copenhagen airport. Waiting forever for a connecting flight to Tampere. Scouring the airport for power.
It's a skillset all its own, finding the elusive (unoccupied) power outlet. I just scored one near a seat, so I don't even have to sit on the floor. Happy day.

I was just going through my notes from summer fieldwork, looking for good snippets from interviews with gamers for my talk tomorrow. Probably the most interesting thing that emerged is the way games serve as the main impetus for public space gatherings. Even in Uzbekistan, which is arguably the most private of the countries in the region, young people gather to talk about games. In some cases, it's the only public discourse of which they're part.

And I have to admit I am riveted by the stories of the city-wide LANs for playing World of Warcraft.

If you're a WOW player, you can imagine what it would be like to have your experience of that game and its world shaped by a playing environment where, on a busy night, the server hosts about 100 players. Sounds like a pretty lonely version of Azeroth. No wonder they schedule playing time with their friends. Not much chance of a pick-up group under those circumstances. But I think that the small population must change all kinds of game dynamics, from auction house activities to guild formation and instances.

And just trying to navigate between Russian/Uzbek terminology for the game and English teminology was a research problem all its own....how do you translate griefing??

04 December 2006

Upcoming: Finland

Next week I'm off to Tampere, Finland to give a talk at the games and storytelling series which is sponsored by several folks including the Hypermedia Lab at the University of Tampere and the Media Lab at the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

Playing Off the Beaten Path...I'm going to talk about games based on fieldwork I've done in the developing world for the past several years.

I have some interviews to do in Helsinki for another project, so I'll spend a couple days there, too. Brrr....

Any tips on fun things to do in Helsinki much appreciated.

03 December 2006

Is your cell phone a listening device?

One of our researchers in Uzbekistan came back after a recent trip with the following story:

A family gathered in the home. An educated, elite family. Not so far from ties to the government.
The head of the household tells everyone to put their cellphones on the table and switch them off.
Then he scoops up all the phones and puts them in another room.
Comes back.
"Now," he says. "Okay, now it is safe to talk about politics."

I thought it was a case of misplaced paranoia about technology in a place where, admittedly, you need to be careful what you say in front of who. But they yesterday I read this about the FBI using powered off cellphones as listening devices, and I had to rethink the Uzbekistan story.

Fish or cut bait

My friend David is probably lucky he doesn't live close by anymore, or he might have had me on his doorstep this morning with a few choice words.

I was a reluctant blogger, and finally capitulated to David's relentlessly pro-blogging arguments. But since I haven't posted for several months, I suspect my feelings towards the whole blogging enterprise are pretty clear. Until I discovered that this damn, dead blog comes up as one of the first hits on google for my name. What I thought I could keep a nice, quiet little backwater of conversation...no dice. Given the nature of online traces, I'm stuck on this track for now.


Time to fish.

21 August 2006

Digital Second Amendment

I'm fixated on privacy.

I was watching a friend do a little hacking a couple months ago, and as I watched the pokeing and prodding at servers around the world (nothing illegal, just demonstrating technique!), I realized that basically this person had superpowers.

I was jealous.

Very Jealous.

While I stewed over my thoroughly lame skill set in comparison, I also started thinking about security issues. And so as our lives move increasingly into digital domains, and increasingly substantial chunks of our well being are wrapped up in electronic traces, everyday citizens remain pretty clueless about how to protect themselves. I started browsing computer security shelves in bookstores. The tools are designed for enterprise systems, the audience is businesses or institutions -- not much is directed to the end user (aka, me!). What I want is transparency. I want to know how to protect myself. I want to know who has access to what information about me, what my vulnerabilities are in the electronic sphere. Actually, I'd be pretty happy if I could tell if my front door is locked.

But it turns out that I don't know how to do the equivalent of scanning a dark street at night to see if it's one I'll walk down alone. I also don't know how to check to make sure my wallet is still in my pocket. And I don't know how to draw my blinds, or lock my windows. I don't know how to see if someone is following me, or if there is a huge gaping hole in the roof of my house from a windstorm. I'm not stupid, and I'm pretty good at figuring things out. I think that I have as much of a need as any large institution to make sure I'm protected. And I think I've decided that I want the ability to protect myself. I don't know of many tools, though, that make it possible for individuals without specialized skill to ensure their own electronic security. On one bookstore trip I found a book called Security and Usability. I'm looking for more around this conversation.

This is not to say that my car can't be stolen or my house broken into. I'm not looking for any sort of guaranteed protection. But I at least want to know when someone has rifled through my stuff.

Summer rites

I'm going to try to heed advice and blog from Seattle as well as from the road.

We'll see how that goes.

I've been re-entering life slowly after my last trip. It was a terrific trip from a research standpoint, but for some reason it took a lot out of me and I'm taking a signficant amount of time to recover.

But I'm also enjoying summer. Which, in Seattle, is about as good as it comes.

One day blackberry picking with my friend Will at a park near the water, getting gouged repeatedly by thorns that look like something out of a horror movie, flagging down a passing ice cream truck for a little refreshment. Despite the scratches that still mar my skin, there's nothing quite like cradling a handful of berries and feeling them still warm from the sun against your skin. Then, of course, mashing them to a pulp hours later to make jam.

A few days later over at my colleague Karen's house, climbing her ladder to pluck apples from an early-season tree. Taking a break from the ladder at some point and climbing the tree -- I can't remember the last time I did that. Bags full of apples sitting in the corner of my kitchen, one batch of gingered applesauce down, about three nights of canning left to go.

Long walks, a trip to the locks, and back in the groove of the bike commute to work.

I love summer so much.

16 August 2006

My first bribe!!

Trying to leave Tajikistan it finally happened. After six long years of traveling in and out and around Central Asia, I finally got to pay my first real bribe! This was a major milestone for me. Most of my friends have harrowing bribery stories, but I had never been shaken down, not once. Not in the city, not in rural areas, not in airports (well, there was that once in the airport in Tashkent, but that guy had his own desk and it was pratically a semi-official transaction. This one, well, this was the real deal).

If Erica were here she would interject (rightly so), "well, we *did* break the law."

Okay. So we did.

But, it's a stupid law. Plus, we didn't mean to break it. Plus, we thought about it and we did think we were on the right side (barely) of the law. But apparently not.

We're at the airport in Dushanbe, and we finally make it to the front of the glacial passport control line. Erica -- the one who actually speaks the language -- is going first. She is asked a couple questions, she answers, the woman checking passports is about to let her go. And then a guard who was sitting outside her booth walks forward. Where is your registration certificate, he asks...

So, in this region (with the exception of Kyrgyzstan for citizens of certain countries) you have to register with the local police when you get to town. You generally have three days in which to register. Local OVIR offices are notoriously bureaurocratic, but it's just one of the hassles of traveling in the region. It's especially a hassle when you want to stay with friends in an apartment, but I have my workarounds for that and I usually go to a hotel I've stayed at in the past and they kindly help me out. Because when you stay in a hotel, generally they register you and you get a slip of paper or they put your name in a book or some such. Well, we had three days in which to register in Dushanbe. We spent the first night at the Hotel Tajikistan, so we figured we were registered for that night. After that we rented an apartment where we stayed for three nights. But we talked it over at brunch on Sunday and decided we were probably okay because we had registration for our first night from the hotel, and then we would be at the three-day max in the apartment. One more day and we would have had to go to OVIR, but we genuinely (mostly) thought we were okay.

So, at the airport the guard is having an earnest conversation with Erica about her (soon to be discovered "our") missing registration certificates. We stayed at the Hotel Tajikistan, she says to the officer. I offer to show the receipt from the hotel. But it turns out the Hotel Tajikistan is the one hotel of all the hotels I have stayed at in five countries in Central Asia that does *not* automatically register you. Apparently you have to request it and pay an additional fee. It never occured to us that we'd have to ask to be registered, since the hotel knows that all foreigners need registration with OVIR. So Erica is having an intense conversation with the airport official who tells her that we have broken the law and that he is required to arrest us. We will be taken away from the airport, and we will miss our plane. Now, I really need to be on that flight to Bishkek since I leave to return to the US the following day, and there are only 3 or 4 flights per week from Dushanbe to Bishkek. So she tells him that we are leaving for America the next day, we cannot miss our plane. His eyes are smiling, this guard. At no point do we have actual visions of Midnight Express running through our minds, but the possibility of real inconvenience does float by. "Should I arrest you?" he asks Erica finally. "I certainly hope not," she responds. So we are given the choice of being arrested, missing our plane, and paying a US$400 fine, or not being arrested, not missing our plane, and paying US$150 "with no receipt."

Erica says "that sounds better."
"Better for who?" the officer asks.
"Better for everyone," she responds.
And he smiles.

She turns to me and says, "It is being suggested that you put $150 in your passport and they will come and check your passport later."

So I pull out my money belt, extract the money, slip it in my passport, and then we proceed to the next line. But someone else is going to check my passport in this line, so I slip the money back into my pocket. We get to the waiting room and we are both having a really hard time keeping a straight face. "My first bribe!" I exclaim to her excitedly. "Mine, too!" she says. We are biting back grins that seem downright unseemly when one is being extorted. So I slip the money back into my passport now and we are waiting for our officer friend to come collect the cash. We wait. And wait. He does not come. Eventually the flight is called and the line forms at the glass doors. We get in line, still wondering when our cash will be disappeared. We move close to the door, and it looks like we are about to leave the terminal, get led out onto the tarmac for the walk to the plane, when Erica suggests I take the money out of my passport since I am about to hand my passport to yet another person. Good point. So I slip the cash back into my pocket. And just then a guard (not the same one) appears from behind the divider with passport control and strides up to me, takes my passport, opens it, and of course finds no cash. He harumphs at me, points energetically at my open passport in his hands and says "In here!" and then he stalks away. I sheepishly slip the money out of my pocket and back into my passport. Hey, I'm new at this bribing thing! So he eventually comes back, collects my passport, disappears for a few minutes, and comes back with my passport and our customs forms (the excuse for needing to come back to get my passport).

And we head out to the tarmac to climb the stairs to our yak-40.

About those customs forms....There's a good chance we were scouted out before we ever got to passport control. While I was leaning on the table filling out the form -- which requires you to put down what kind of currencies you have and how much of each -- a very friendly guard came up and stood on the opposite side of the table, looking over the side at my form as I was writing, smiling down as he watched me intently. As I was writing that I had Kyrgyz som, Tajik somani, and, oh yeah, US dollars -- 500 of them. He asked us some questions that I didn't pay attention to, but later found out that he was asking if we spoke Russian. I think if we didn't speak Russian we wouldn't have been worth the trouble.

So, I parted with $150, which is probably about 5 months worth of salary for that guy.

The only question now is how I explain the expenditure to the department fiscal person when I file my trip expense.

no coke, no smile?

I've been back over a week now, but my blogging took a pause...

So, it turns out Tajikistan is a country without coca-cola. At least in the capital. A couple days into the visit Erica and I both commented that wasn't it odd there were no big bottles of coke on the tables set for parties at the restaurants...Fanta, sure. But no Coca-Cola. Instead...RC Cola.

It was also remarkable how much Dushanbe reminded us of Uzbekistan a few years ago. Lots more women in traditional dress, but so much similarity, more than in Kyrgyzstan. Even linguistically.

One thing that several people mentioned to us in conversation is that during the civil war many many people left the city. Ethnic Russians headed to Russia, Tajiks who left for other parts of the country or to emigrate did so in large numbers. And what happened is that the people from the villages moved into the city. So although Dushanbe is the capital, the residents are drawn heavily from rural areas. Apparently it makes for an interesting cultural mix. The big city population doesn't necessarily reflect so-called big city mentality.

31 July 2006

It's just like Italy!

This is the only place I’ve been in Central Asia where I’ve experienced any kind of come-ons by strangers. When I lived in Uzbekistan, my theory was that a modicum of moderate dress meant that I benefited from the cultural attitudes towards women that prevented approaching strangers in the street– and that worked just fine. It was nothing like Italy, or Portugal, where I’ve experienced men propositioning me or making suggestive comments on the street. But yesterday, Erica and I and a western man who lives in Dushanbe we walking down the park that divides the boulevard near our apartment. We pass a bench of three older men, with white beards, skullcaps, traditional dress. Assalom Aleikum, one of the says. Aleikum Assalom, Erica politely responds. One then says Mojyena? [which is a Russian word which translates ‘is it possible?’] Our stride doesn't break and none of the men on the bench speak further, and we are left to puzzle over the meaning of a question we have no desire to understand further.

After dinner last night, Erica and I are walking back to the apartment, crossing the same park in the middle of the boulevard to make the turn to our street. A man falls into step behind us, addressing us in Russian. “Ladies, are you bored? Is it too boring? Are you bored?” Then he says “be careful there is a car” because we are of course crossing the road as one does here, one lane at a time or just stepping into the street and adjusting one’s pace to wait for the car in the next lane to go by. (of course, I wouldn't have understood any of that exchange other than the car warning, but Erica's excellent Russian once again helped out.)

Neither incident had any menace, but they were just curiously unusual for the region.

Dining out

Our brunch Sunday was at the expat hangout which had great cappuccinos but was ridiculously expensive. We finally ventured out for dinner around 7:30 or so, intending to walk by a place we saw on our way to the bazaar to check it out. But we got sidetracked by a festive sounding outdoor place, and then we realized someone somewhere had mentioned it to us, so we took a seat and had a really lovely, somewhat Iranian meal on a patio next to a stagnant fountain. Neither of us wants to continue with the malarial medicine, so we weren’t thrilled with the mosquitoes. But the music was really good (genuine live music, not the Bishkek kind where “live music” is the advertisement for karaoke), the food was tasty (although I find the prevalence of mayonnaise in a region of intermittent refrigeration somewhat puzzling), and we were back in the realm of $4 meals. Plus we got to watch a group of 50ish folks dancing with great enthusiasm, causing us to speculate why it is in America that dancing is seen as an activity for the young.

still riveted by the satellite tv

The array of stations is amazing. There are channels from Russia, Kazakhstan, China (including CCTV news which is China news broadcast in English), France, Spain, Portugal, a whole Italian section, Libya, Qatar, Saudia Arabia, Yemen (which was broadcasting what looked like a school play; there were three characters on stage, 2 men and a woman, and the woman was wearing a full burka, so when she spoke you couldn’t really hear her lines), Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Sudan (which was broadcasting a show of a guy sitting at a news anchor-like desk with an old school laptop open in front of him who was giving some sort of computer instruction with screenshots popping up in back of him), Oman, a station called El Iraqia (we thought that might be Iraq), Algeria, Egypt (Nile News – 2 channels’ worth), of course Al Jazeera, a truly dizzying array of sex voice chat advertisements from around the world, and a puzzling number of music video channels also from around the world. Apparently the music video is the international language.

More trouble with telecom

On the way to the bazaar we saw some pay phones, and I of course had to take some pictures. I’m an odd kind of tourist, constantly snapping pictures, but largely of signs of Internet or phone services, or phones on the street, etc. Many of the pay phones on the street look decrepit, or are missing actual phones. But we saw close to the bazaar a series of pay phone booths (they are not really booths, but the half enclosure you see in the US most often), with the pay phones that hang on the back of the booth missing or clearly inoperative. But a phone that looks like what you find in an apartment or a shop – just a regular phone that usually gets plugged into a land line -- is tethered to the bottom part of the platform, and people are making calls from it. I’m still not sure whose line it is, or what the pay scheme is, but that’s a question to get answered tomorrow.

stocking up for the apartment

Erica and I went to the Green Bazaar this afternoon for some supplies for the apartment. Toilet paper, water, fruit, that sort of thing. We got some amazing nectarines and grapes and figs, some fresh nan (bread), some tea, eggs, and cheese. During our walk through the bazaar and shopping, we picked up an entourage of young boys who really wanted to carry our stuff for us, convinced our bags were too heavy for us. The entourage got a little annoying, but they were very good natured. And at one point Erica tried to give one of them a one somani note, but he waved her away and looked rather offended. It appeared he wanted to earn the money, not just be given it as a handout.

The bazaar was similar to the ones we had both shopped in before, especially in Uzbekistan. Incredible fruits and vegetables this time of year, the dried fruits and nuts, the clothing section, the hardware section with old pipes and rubber boots and jars and random molded plastic car parts, the fifteen kinds of honey in old jars. But neither of us had ever picked up a train of young boys before. And there were more men that I recall from other bazaars, although the produce parts were still dominated by women. But we rounded a corner in the hardware section (this is all outside, in the hot summer sun, though some parts are covered), and a row of men were standing on a concrete slab facing one way. It appeared to be prayer time.

There were more local goods, and the old Soviet things I recall from Uzbekistan back in 2000. There were lots of chickpeas and lentils, lots of cloth for traditional clothing which the women wear here more than I’ve seen in any other Central Asian capital, not as much of the imported goods from China that can be seen all over Bishkek, and the occasional pair of men playing checkers behind a produce stand.

Satellite TV near the Afghan border

Dushanbe is relatively close to Afghanistan. Maybe 100 km. We were warned about heroin use being rampant since so much of the drug trade apparently funnels through here. But we’ve seen no evidence of that – unless you count the Mercedes and Audis that roam the streets.

We relocated from the Hotel Tajikistan to an apartment we rented in the city center. Less than half the price and much more comfortable than the former Intourist megacomplex. So we had brunch with an expat in Dushanbe, then retired back to our luxurious new digs to wilt in the heat for a bit. And then we got the satellite tv working. Oh, hooray. I’ve been a little starved for news, so I was very happy to get to some bbc. And so we found the channel, and started watching, and the attack on the UN building in Beruit unfolded before us, a response to the Israeli attack on Qata that killed dozens of children. It was horrifying and amazing to watch the demonstration grow, and advance, and eventually surge through the gates of the UN building. (Not to mention surreal moments like the cameras pan of the crowd and the various flags being carried that included one with a hammer and sickle.) One of the BBC reporters got into the building with a camera rolling, so we saw footage of people with baseball bats going at glass doors, kicking chairs, clearly venting overflowing anger. There was violence, but it looked like the expression of frustration rather than…well…something more random. So we watched for some time as the protest escalated, and then the camera pulled back, and we could see a Muslim cleric gesturing at the crowd from near the entrance to the building. There were guards there, too – apparently from the Lebanese militia. The cleric was gesturing broadly, his arms swinging wide, directing people. From the camera vantage point it was difficult at first to discern, but then it became clear he was turning people from the building, urging them to head towards the square to continue the protest without the violence. The reporter narrated the change in the crowd’s mood. It was amazing and distressing to watch that event unfold, but we also felt lucky that we got to see it as we did, uncertain of whether it would even be covered in the US press.

the sims (no, not the game)

Once we were settled at the hotel, we went out for lunch. My first errands: change money, then get a sim card. The first few places we walked into to change we located in electronics shops. Just a small window in a sea of cell phones and accessories and motherboards mounted on the wall like displays on mannequins of the latest fashions. The change places in Bishkek, at least the small cluster around TSUM (state department store) were, by contrast, located in jewelry shops. A little insight into what kind of major purchases people make with some regularity…

To get the sim they needed a passport. Also different from Kyrgyzstan where a small vendor at the bazaar happily sold me two sim cards with no identity check. We had lots of plans to choose from, but I went for the prepay from Babilon mobile. Full service – they put the sim in for me, dialed in and did the pin. Had some trouble with the phone, asked if it was from America. No, I said, from the Netherlands (I purchased it in the Amsterdam airport on my way over since my other travel phone has been dying the last few trips). So they tried again, got it registered, called me from the shop phone to make sure it was working, then wrote down my phone number for me, and then showed me how to check my balance. A really nice start to the visit here.


Flying over the Pamirs is kind of breathtaking. Someday I want to see them up close.

As we landed at the Dushanbe airport under a cloudless blue sky, I could see a series of military jets underneath the airplane hanger equivalent of a carport, only arced. And as the airplane taxied towards stairs that would be rolled up to the plane so we could alight and board the bus which would take us to the terminal, the flagger on the runway appeared out my window. He was grasping what looked like giant old-school flyswatters, or maybe ping-pong paddles with longer handles – one red and one green – the bicycle he had ridden out to the middle of the runway laying on its side behind him.

This is the first time I’ve been to a place that was recently in war. The guidebook says Dushanbe is the prettiest of the Central Asian capitals, which seemed improbable given the many year civil war and the city-wide curfew that existed until 2002, but it’s true. The architecture here is amazing, the roads are in great shape in the city (the main boulevard was repaved last week for the visit of the presidents of Iran and Afghanistan, but apparently the road was fine before that), the fountains are all working, and the streetlights get turned on at night. We’re both a little puzzled and are trying to figure this place out.

Some estimates say that up to 50% of the country's economic activity is related to the opium that flows through. I have no idea if that bears any relationship to the truth.

There are, of course, still remnants of the war. It destroyed the city’s water filtration system, so the water comes directly from the river. That means silt and pebbles and plant matter can flow from the faucet. And it also destroyed the city’s heating system, though that’s not such an issue for us visiting when the temps are in the 105 range.


Last week, in Kyrgyzstan, we did some of our design ethnography work in a place outside the capital. For various logistical reasons we ended up in a city called Karabalta, relatively close to Bishkek. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we found out the day before our visit that Karabalta was a twin city, that half of it was one of the old closed Soviet cities (uranium close by), the cities that had no names but we known only by numbers, like postboxes, so were sometimes called Pochtayali (I’m massacaring that Russian word, I know).

We ended up walking around what had been the closed city, and it was a little slice of the CCCP. Hammer and sickle statuary, including a giant art nuveaux one. A large, silver Lenin, still in a place of honor in the park. Street names and murals remained, and we stayed in a sports stadium that had dorm-like rooms (girls in one room, boys in another) for about $2.50 per bed with a bathroom that defies words, and a shower downstairs that one arranged ahead of time. We were told when we “checked in” that it took an hour for the hot water to be ready, then that was enough for 2-3 people, then it would take another hour to be ready again. We showered in stages. An old man leads you downstairs to a hallway, down which is a large locker room with a smaller room inside with the spigot. He explains that he will lock the metal grate at the entrance to the hallway behind you as a safety measure, and when you are done, you must rattle the bars of the grate and call for him and he will come let you out. Generally speaking, I try not to think about fire codes when I am in this region.

I showered with my shoes on.

24 July 2006

Caption this picture

Emma had the brilliant suggestion of a caption-writing contest.
Winner gets a Central Asian treasure.

The Tien Shan

On Saturday, the group of students from American University in Central Asia who are helping us with our research arranged an outing for us in the mountains. Kyrgyzstan is known for its mountains, and it's a little shameful that this is my fourth trip and I haven't yet been to see them (or to Lake Issykul, but that's another matter I hope to resolve sometime soon). So they showed up in the morning and we went over the project, then someone left to go get the driver. It was amashrutka driver who apparently ditched his route for the day. One of the students had met him earlier that day and decided he seemed like a nice guy, so we piled into his van, stopped for fruit and drinks on the way out of town, then headed to Ala-Archa, a national park near Bishkek. The mountains were, to say it utterly inadequately, impressive. Glacial, towering, sharply steep...the Tien Shan. We walked up a bit dragging food (Erica carring a ginormous watermelon that made her biceps sore), a Central Asia grill, and what seemed like two sheeps' worth of meat.

We found a perfect spot on the banks of a rushing, gray, glacial river...cold, cold, and the perfect refrigeration for our drinks and melon.

The students from AUCA set up the grill and charcoal, and we had a long afternoon of shashlik...a little too long since the amount of meat was probably more appropriate for the garrison of soldiers we encountered in the woods on our walk. So we were there till past 7pm, waiting for the skewers of meat to cook, feeling the evening cool rapidly as the sun went behind the mountains, but utterly enjoying the remarkable surroundings.


So here we are, four days into a week of research designed to culiminate in some ideas for mobile social software for the developing world. I'm blogging from my "bed" on the livingroom couch in the apartment I'm sharing with three UW students on a 28.8 dialup connection, and luxuriating in the fact that it's nearly 9am and I haven't yet had to rush out to an Internet cafe to print out consent forms for an impending interview.

We're having a great time. Although the apartment situation has some reality show overtones, things are running remarkably smoothly. Tomorrow we hop into a mashrutka (share minibus) for a trip to a town called Karabata, a former industrial town somewhere near the border of Kazakhstan, about 2 hours away. We’ll do a second round of interviews there, and then spend the night (our team of 4 and the 3 translators) in a 2 room apartment, then hop another share minbus back to town. One student, Mark, goes home that night, and then we do a day of debrief, then Emma heads home and Erica and I are off to Tajikistan.

The city looks great, at least in the center where we have been spending our time. Lots of new stores, good streets, new cars – BMWs and Audis and Mercedes – and it is thoroughly unclear where, exactly, the money is coming from. There’s still lots of shuttle traders going back and forth to China (and flying back and forth to Korea), but there is clearly wealth here and no one seems able to account for it. The best explanation we’ve heard is international aid – but that hardly accounts for a GDP. When we get out to the region we’ll see a more realistic picture of the country which should be telling.

I've always found Bishkek the friendliest Central Asian city, and it's definitely living up to that reputation. Things here can be downright easy. Erica pointed me to the most amazingly efficient travel agency (Kyrgyz Concept, if you find youself in Bishkek; they rock), shopping is transparent and pleasant, and although the city seems to slow a bit in the heat, there's a lovely rhythym to life here.

11 July 2006

Etiquette question

I just got off a conference call with some folks in India. As we were waiting for the call to start, my colleague Chris and I were doing some morning news surfing, and I was reading about the series of bomb blasts that hit the commuter railway in Mumbai. The call was taking longer to set up than anticipated, and we speculated that, although our conference was scheduled with people in Delhi, no doubt the rash of attacks had slowed the evening commute there as well. Once the call began, we wanted to communicate our awareness and empathy about the attacks. But we looked at each other blankly, not quite sure what the etiquette was, or what kind of social platitude one uses for expressing condolences over terrorist attacks. Any suggestions?

09 July 2006

Liminal travel

The thing about Central Asia (which is the focus of much of my research , is that it's not easily shelved. I don't mean that it's a region that shouldn't be ignored (which is true, but not the point here), but that it's sort of in the middle of everything.

Central Asia straddles most of the boundaries used to demarcate the world. Go to BBC or CNN or the NYTimes, and look at their world map. Where would you click to get the news about Kyrgyzstan? Or, more relevantly for me, what shelf do you look on in the travel section of the bookstore to see if Lonely Planet has a new edition of their Central Asia volume? Is it under Asia? Middle East? Eastern Europe? Turns out everyone makes their own choice, because it's a liminal place. It cascades chaotically across our neat geographical boundaries, it aligns with different sections of the colored map depending on who's doing the drawing.

I'm now used to the fact that this project takes more time to coordinate than many others I've worked on, that it has a unique set of demands that are a tremendous drain on time. But for heaven's sake. I know where the travel section is in the bookstore. Finding the book should have taken less than five minutes, not required me to finally give up (do they really not have it? Or is it just not the shelves I have checked? Because if I were looking for a book on Italy, I'd pretty much know immediately whether or not they had it. Either it would be on the shelf under Europe or it wouldn't. But maybe Central Asia is here somewhere, on some shelf, somewhere, but I just can't find it because I don't know how they've chosen to categorize it here) and seek out someone working at the boosktore so they could check their stock and see if it is out there somewhere.

I'm off to Bishkek in a little over a week. For some design ethnography research. It should be a fantastic trip. You'll hear more about that soon.

Yes, the NYT is a newspaper

I called the university library last week. I'd read something in the New York Times that I wanted to share with a grad student. But I'd read it over the weekend, in my paper version, and I couldn't remember the author. I had a vague idea it was an op-ed piece. And although I am a subscriber and so am eligible for the so-called Times Select service, I've thus far refused to sign up for it because I haven't found a way to anonymize my reading of Time Select pieces (whereas my 13-year-old login for the electronic NYT website isn't associated with my real name). In a flight of paranoia, I've decided I don't want my reading habits tracked to my real name. So, no Times Select for me. But I want to get this piece for Emma. So I call the library to see if we have university access to Times Select. We have access to the Times archive via our library subscriptions, but I'd need to know something like the title or the author to track down the piece. On the other hand, all I know is "it was in Sunday's edition." A difficult search criteria given the way library databases are built.

A young man answers the phone. I explain my problem. He thinks for a moment, then says he doesn't know, but he'll forward me to the microfilm and periodicals person. But first he pauses, to make sure he's transferring me to the right person. "The NYT is a newspaper, right?"


The final piece of my trip to Kenya was a one-day visit to a place called Sauri. A small village in western Kenya, near Lake Victoria, Sauri is one of the Millenium Project Villages run by the Earth Institute at Columbia. I made the visit as a favor to some folks I knew who were interested in learning about the village, and since they knew I was on my way to Kenya, they asked if I could stop by during my trip. I only had a day, but it was amazing how many interviews one can pack into daylight hours.

Ouko and I flew out together to Kisumu early in the morning, and we met with the head of the local office in town. Then we were scheduled to head out to the field office. When we came downstairs to head to the truck, there was a woman waiting at the office, a professor emeritus from Columbia who worked on family planning. She was on her way to Uganda, but wanted to visit Sauri first. So she hopped into the truck with us for the drive out to the village. When we got to the field office (where we were going to check on some reported problems with their Internet connectivity), there was a guy from Britain who currently teaches agriculture in Uganda who also was in the area and had heard about the project, and wanted to take a look. So he jumped in the truck with us, too. By the time we got to the first meeting in the village, we also met up with two members of the Kenyan office of ActionAid. We'd turned into quite an entourage, but I got the impression that wasn't uncommon.

We met with the coordinating committe of the village, saw the health clinic, visited the primary school, talked with some teachers, saw the new kitchen and learned about the school feeding program, saw the electricity that had been run to the school and the giant transformer stranded on the front lawn waiting for the right engineer to come by and step down the power, met with the agricultural committee, talked with the infrastructure guy, visited a water project, saw the impressive corn crop that had benefited from improved seeds and fertilizer, and then met with some folks outside of the village. It was a very interesting day, and Ouko and I learned a surprising amount in a short time span.

I'm not going to write much more about it here, at least not now. But feel free to contact me if you want to know more.

The trouble with telecom

Last night I hosted a going away party for my friend David and his partner Sarah. David, who is the person who harassed me until I started this blog, has now informed me that I am in grave, grave danger for my long absence from posting. So, like a chastened student, I will post:

Still with Kenya on my mind, and thinking about all the things that contribute to development...one thing I learned from that recent trip was the really crucial role communications technologies play in just getting things done. I'm not talking anything fancy, but just being able to place a phone call makes all the difference.

Several years ago I complained to a friend that while I was pretty good at travelling, the one thing that completely baffles me is telecom on the road. Figuring out how to use a pay phone (this was before cell phones) and what numbers to dial is one of those undocumented pieces of local lore. Sure, the Lonely Planet has some tips, but they're not always current. These days, I have given up trying. I buy my local sim, pop it in my phone, and then go up to a stranger and hold out the phone with the simple words, "can you please help me?" I'll hand them the local number and ask them what I need to dial. In some places (Kyryzstan comes to mind), the prefix you have to dial varies depending on the recipient's cell carrier. Which means when you get someone's phone number, you have to ask them whose sim they have. If you live there long enough, you start to recognize the prefixes as proprietary to one carrier or another. But if you're in the country for 3 or 4 days, it's not exactly a transparent process.

So in Kenya, while cell phones are popular, the cost of making a call is still prohibitive. Something on the order of US$0.30 per minute.That's cell to cell. Go from cell to landline and the cost skyrockets. So much for the promise of leapfrogging technologies. A person doing research there said that the sheer economic barrier of making a call means she makes choices every day about what kind of things don't have to get done that day. And it's not like everyone is checking email all the time. And it's not like Nairobi is so quick and easy to navigate across town that face-to-face communications are the answer.

And as for Internet, leaving aside South Africa, there's no cable connection in sub-Saharan Africa for Internet connectivity. It's all satellite, which means it's all ridiculously, horrifyingly expensive. That's old news to many of my colleagues, I know. But I still think it bears repeating.

14 June 2006


So apparently the word safari in swahili means adventure.

We had an adventure.

Imagine the Mara...endless grasslands of the Great Rift Valley...the next ecosystem down from the Serengeti...land of zebras and elephants and giraffes and impalas and warthogs and, oh yeah, lions.
Now, imagine late afternoon. The prime time for a safari drive. When all the animals come out...
Now imagine a dirt road through the national preserve, a small van amidst the grasslands...
Now imagine the driver of the van turning around and asking a passenger "do you know what this light means?"
That passenger didn't know. But I did. "It's the check engine light," I said.

Imagine an engine overheating. Imagine the radiator hissing. Imagine the two passengers nearest the engine (an engine which resides under the front passenger seat) getting blasted by the scalding heat of the steam as the radiator cap is loosed and leaping from the van out onto the dirt road that runs through the grasslands and it is late afternoon when all the animals come out.

Imagine these two passengers staring off into the grass looking for rustling as the driver and the passenger who happened to have formerly been captain of a fishing boat in Alaska try to fix the engine. Imagine the seven passengers digging through their backpacks to find out whatever bottles of water they have so the driver can empty them into the radiator.

Imagine a van limping along the road at 15 km/hour for about 7 minutes until the engine overheats.

Scenario repeats.

Four times over.

Passing vans are stopped and asked for donations of water.

Eventually we reach the river and fill up all the empty bottles. A long slow drive to the hotel begins, but now we are to the point where the hotel knows we are on the way.

A full moon is rising over the distant escarpment. Dusk is falling.

Now imagine a flat tire.

Imagine all the passengers out on the dirt road that runs through the grasslands and it is late afternoon when all the animals come out. Actually, by now it is evening. Dusk about to turn into night. All together now, pull the luggage from the back, pull out a spare, all hands lift up the side of the van so the jack can be positioned, tire changed in haste, luggage thrown back in the van as passengers still eye the grass for telltale rustling as dusk deepens.

I will say that the next morning when we were able to do the game drive we saw a staggering number of animals, including lions (and lionesses, later in the afternoon), elephants, hippos, giraffes, and pretty much everything else in the park. And yes, I am taking pictures and will post indiscriminently when I return.

Safari adventure. I recommend it.

10 June 2006

Name that tune

At breakfast with some of the folks from Kenya and DRC the second morning, our conversation about politics was interrupted when the guitarists from the evening before walked by the dining room and talk turned to music and singing. Most of the conversation was in Swahili, so I asked for some clarification.
“Congolese sing very well. Perhaps he will sing for you if you ask,” a Kenyan says of our DRC colleague. And then looks at me.
“I am a terrible singer. I can’t sing to save my life,” I say. [ those of you who know me know who dreadfully true that is]
And at that point we return to our conversation about a man who used to be a minister in the government.
“Why is he no longer minister?” I ask.
“Well, when you are minister, you must know how to sing. To sing the tune of the government,” one of my companions says.
And then another adds, “Like you, he could not sing to save his life.”

What do you use Flickr for?

I made my presentation the first day of the workshop. Since we had gotten a late start, everything was time compressed, so I had about 10 minutes. Basically, I talked about involving community members in data collection and dissemination efforts (leverage those social networks!) and a variety of technologies that could be used in disaster relief and humanitarian aid efforts. I ran through a bunch of Web 2.0 technologies and mobile phone services that might be useful given the range of projects people in the room were working on, including using Flickr as a way of helping affected populations reunite with family members or identify injured…etc. When you’ve got populations spread out over large areas, children who are separated from their families and difficult to identify, it seems like this might be a viable way to leverage community input to track down family members and others.

Sleeping quarters

Our hotel is quite posh, and the rooms are in two and three-story stacks perched along the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, up above Lake Naivasha. An amazing view, and turndown service includes loosening the cascades of white mosquito netting canopied around the bed. Very romantic. And reassuring since I didn’t pack my deet.

The first evening, walking back to my room with Christine, the woman who happened to be next door, we picked our way carefully down the steps leading to our entrances. Up the path the other way we saw an askari (guard) standing silently in silhouette, his radio squawking. A large dog was in the shadows next to him, just as still and silent. Christine and I made note together, a fully approving note. Remoteness can be both security and vulnerability.

I woke us this morning to the sun rising over the Great Rift Valley. Nice. But as I pulled open my curtains my attention was grabbed by two small yet clearly well-fed kitties on my porch. About Vanessa size (for those who knew her), but much more robust. I wondered what had drawn them there, and was mostly hoping they had chowed down on whatever it was.

The Great Rift Valley

We made the drive from Nairobi to Lake Naivasha, and the road out of town took us variously through posh upper end neighborhoods and then slums, then back to posh, and etc. etc.

Not far into the drive we got a great view of Mt. Longmont, a former volcano, which quickly opened into a remarkably breathtaking view of the Great Rift Valley. It’s improbable, the feeling of being here. I got the same feeling I had when driving from Almaty to Bishkek and watching the sun set over the steppes – being thrown unexpectedly into massively significant geography that I pretty much had no idea existed until just then.

I think my favorite thing we saw – other than the group of baboons that crossed the road in front of us, halting our minibus for a few moments, was the yellow fever acacia tree. It’s an acacia (favored snack of giraffes) with a yellow-green bark that is almost florescent. The name, I’m told, comes from the British settlers who first though malaria was caused by those trees. The trees do, however, grow near water…

We were warned the last stretch of road was bad, but after Cambodia, it was like superhighway all the way.

07 June 2006

Do I look like the kind of woman who would walk the check?

Just checked out of our nairobi hotel, about to pile into minibuses for the trek to Lake Naivasha. Only to be told that the guy flying in from Sudan was delayed. So now a crowd out front is debating whether we wait the hour for him to get through the traffic from the airport.

Meanwhile, the routine for checking out of the hotel went something like this. Long wait in line at cashier. Pay bill with visa. Get slip with room number. Show slip to guard at door before being able to leave hotel. It was sort of like checking out at Costco.

Games kids play

So when Ouko and I were doing our circuit of Nairobi internet cafes, I mentioned that I also was curiosu about game arcades that might attract kids. This would be part of my work that looks at games as the technological entry point for kids. So after a few visits to cybers, we headed toward an arcade that he remembered from his childhood. It took a while to find it, and it was in one of the buildings off a main street. We walked down three dingy flights of stairs well underground and stepped into the 1970s. No xboxes or nintendo here; this was space invaders and pacman and pinball galore. Arcade games that had been there over 25 years, with the scuffs and grime to vouch for their age. About five men in their 20s or 30s hanging around the pool table, and a sign on the door saying absolutely no children would be allowed in without their parents consent.

I was told the place would be full of kids once school let out. Without parental consent.

That infamous traffic!

I think Nairobi is supposed to have dreadful traffic. I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard people complaining. I still think the worst I've experienced, though, is the "leave three hours to get to the airport" in Bangkok.

So last night we headed out to dinner, a bunch of folks from the workshop piled into a couple cabs. Me and my colleague Mark, a prof from USC and his wife, a public health professor from Kinshasa, and a woman in the aid community in Zambia. And Ouko joined us later. It was 7ish, and rush hour was full upon us. So was darkness. (One thing about being basically on top of the equator; the days are pretty darn short when compared to summertime in Seattle.) The cab took a detour off the main road to avoid traffic, a quick right turn across incoming traffic (left side of the road drive in Kenya), up what looked like a residential road that climbed a hill. And there were two men with guns (as Mark noted, very large guns, looked like machine guns) waving the car over, and there were spikes in the road. Traffic police, I assumed. The cab driver started to pull over then thought better of it, maybe not wanting to risk a possible "fee" request. So then he pulled back into the road and accelerated. The man with the machine gun ran after him, yelling something. The cab driver laughed and yelled back, waving his arm. The police officer was impressively persistent, reaching into the car through the open window to grab the driver as he manuevered the car back on the road. The cabbie shook him off and drove, still laughing. The debrief Mark got in response to his questions was somewhat unsatisfying. Were they really police or not, he wanted to know. Consensus is that they were, and that they were there to help catch carjackers (common in Nairobi), but that they might have been looking for a salary supplement as well.

At dinner, still curious, I asked the public health professor what the conversation consisted of during those few moments. Apparently the police officer was telling the driver to stop or he would shoot. The driver was laughing and saying go ahead then, and shoot.


(a long post, accumulation of a couple days)
I was in Bangkok a few weeks ago, and I got to meet up with my friend Ivan. When I told him I was headed to Kenya, he clued me in on the nickname for the capitol. So I dutifully packed one of those under-the-clothes money belts and suited up during my stopover in Amsterdam. (mid-journey routine: wash face, have double cafe creme, find wifi, take malaria meds, pick up miscellaneous tech gadgets at Schipol duty free). It turns out that the fashion thing about low fitting jeans doesn't work out so well when you've got a money belt strapped around your waist. Think of the Monica thong issue and you'll get the picture.

It was an easy trip overall -- empty seats next to me on both planes (hallelujah!), and a really smooth visa-on-arrival and ride actually waiting at the airport. A really nice woman named Elizabeth and a guy whose name I never learned drove me into town, and I got some quick Swahili lessons -- all of which I'm sure my jetlagged brain will forget overnight. As we rode into town I saw stars in the sky. I don't know why I was so startled by that (too much travel to megalopolises maybe). Nairobi is high up, about 5000 feet, and the air is cool. I had dinner outside, some local beer, and read some of Jeff Sachs' book. There's wifi in a relatively grim hotel room, so I'm not sure whether or not to complain. I may have to post a pic of the bathroom, though.

Oh, why am I here? Primarily to attend a workshop on ICTs and humanitarian relief. With a side visit to a place called Sauri.

Today I spent sometime in downtown Nairobi with Ouko, a former MIT colleague of my friend Mike's. I wanted to get a blitz introduction to public ICT usage in Nairobi, so we visited a bunch of Internet cafes. I learned a new noun: “cybers” they are called here. We started at a highbrow center in the basement of a banking high rise catering to businesspeople – well, they used to get a lot of students, but when they started blocking P2P sites, the students evaporated. Then we went to a place a few blocks away in another highrise, walking up four floors, past the soaring chorus of lunchtime religious celebrants, to a crowded, cluttered place full of loiterers, emailers, and people in pursuit of online dating. In the hallway of the building outside was a guy who’d started a VoIP calling business, and we chatted a bit about his clients and business model, and the varying costs of calling different countries. Canada is the cheapest, he said, at about 2 shillings per minute. I asked which country was the most expensive, and was told it was Somalia, a country that actually shares a border with Kenya. It’s about 65 shillings per minute to call the country next door.

04 June 2006

it begins...

My friend David has been pestering me to start a blog for, well...a long time. I've finally succumbed. I'm still not entirely sure about this, but since yet another person chimed in last night that I really really need to have a blog, I'm willing to give it a try if only to stop the helpful advice.

I'm leaving for Kenya tomorrow, stuck in my office late tonight finishing up grades for the end of the quarter and various and sundry tasks associated with my research in Central Asia (see depts.washington.edu/caict for a really out-of-date website thin on details, but check back end of June for some real stuff).

Basically, travel is a huge chunk of what I do these days. I've got my routine pretty well down, and good stocks of zithro and hand sanitizer. But I took a break from grading yesterday to go out and make some last minute trip purchases, including some anti-malarial pills. I had a bunch left over from Cambodia last summer, but needed a few more for this trip. So I went to a pharmacy near my office and was about to hand over the scrip, when it occured to me to ask a question. Those of you who aren't in Washington state might not know this, but we're one of the states that lets pharmacists dispense Plan B (aka the morning after pill) without a doctor's prescription. But the ready availability of Plan B is increasingly under fire. So I asked the pharmacist if they dispensed Plan B. He said no, but dodged the question with some ramble about doctor's profile that I couldn't understand. So I stared at him a moment and then gently removed my malarone prescription from his hand. "I'll get this filled somewhere else," I said. And when I found a pharmacy where they said yes, they did dispense Plan B (and did I need some), I said no, I didn't need it, but I didn't want to give my business to someone who was reneging on their professional duty to provide health services.