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The Queleas


The Queleas arrived in mid-summer as the temperature in Dakar ramped up. Uninvited but hugely welcome, they have been an entertaining part of my mornings and evenings until the rains came and chased them away.

Chatty little things, several dozen Queleas began setting up shop in the Casuarina trees in our back yard, twisting and weaving bits of grass and needle into bowl-shaped nests that hung from the branches. They were so intensely chirpy that the neighbors complained, but what was not to like about so much energy and activity outside the windows? And their industry and perspicacity were a welcome respite from life in human West Africa. Continue reading "The Queleas"

Categories: Senegal
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The Sierra Nevada

We’d thought about traveling to Austria or Switzerland in search of snow, but Spanish friends told us there was an easier way. And there was. Senegal is closest to Spain, and just outside of Granada in the south of Spain, lie the Sierra Nevada, whose 3000 foot peaks gathered snow each winter within just a few hundred miles’ distance from the Mediterranean. Too good to be true?

Too good. And too true. We were there in two days’ travel, taking an evening in Madrid to rest up from yet another red-eye flight from Africa over cups of hot chocolate and a plate of warm churros. Arriving in Granada we proceeded southeast and up, on a bus that left Granada’s station several times each morning carrying travelers and their skis. The road narrowed, turning back on itself again and again and fording small streams as the snow gathered at roadside and the pines thinned, and then we were there at the ski camp. Continue reading "The Sierra Nevada"

Categories: Spain
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Foix wasn’t even supposed to be part of the trip we’d planned from Toulouse down the length of the Canal de Midi towards the Mediterranean, but as I thumbed through books and maps, the lumpy Pyrenees caught my attention again and again. Running the numbers, I calculated it would be possible. Little did I suspect it would be one of the highlights of our trip, and the glimmer of a forthcoming trip we will plan for another day.

The Pyrenees are an easy train ride from Toulouse, rising slowly through farmland and thistle until the pines begin to close in and the air cools. We stepped out of the station house and heard it: l’Ariège, a cold mountain river somewhere above us. It had rained the night we slept in Toulouse, and the Ariege was running bank full and opaque, carrying leaves from the mountains above us. The sound of the water in the gorge was impressive, and the air was clean and cool: a nice welcome to the mountains for a family that has spent many years at sea level in the tropics. Continue reading "Foix"

Categories: France
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The Traverse at Ngor

Ngor, just beyond a little channel whose twin openings to the sea permit the force of the Atlantic to pour forth in wavelets that meet in the middle in a chaos of interference: it’s an easy traverse by wooden pirogue, ending at the little island that makes for joyful Saturday beach excursions. But speckled with boats at anchor, protected by the worst of the sea’s excesses, it makes a nice paddling excursion, too. So starting in late fall of last year, I made a habit of putting my surfboard in at day’s end and paddling out across the current to Ngor and back.

It was a good workout for the arms and shoulders and therefore probably good for my surfing. It was also an exercise in Senegalese ecology, as the traverse sent me across a channel that, at its deepest, was probably only about ten or twelve feet in depth. That’s deep enough to drown in, and many Senegalese have drowned there due to careless pirogue captains overloading their vessels and racing back and forth in reckless competition with their colleagues. But, except for an instant when, as the tide turns and the sea begins to pull and the ships turn on their moorings, it was no stress for a competent swimmer on a fiberglass longboard. Continue reading "The Traverse at Ngor"

Categories: Senegal
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The borked backup: a tale of database disaster

angry bear

This is a story with a happy ending, eventually. It’s the tale of how Google and some script-fu saved my bacon. There’s a moral, too: don’t be stupid, and you’re stupider than you think you are. That was my case, anyway, when a bear mauled my database.

I was running 4 websites on FreeBSD 9.0, and after two years of upgrading, it was time to upgrade the system to FreeBSD 10.0. That was an upgrade with some risks, and in my case, it went poorly. The system had been getting quirky anyway, so I figured it was time to just wipe it clean and install FreeBSD 10 fresh. I had downloaded to my local machine a full set of backups, so I was ready to go. As the new machine came up, disaster struck. Continue reading "The borked backup: a tale of database disaster"

Categories: Tech
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Making Communities, Breaking Communities

Pipedot logo

The online world of the World Wide Web is, in some ways, shattering into individual walled gardens hosted and jealously guarded by corporations who shepherd users into the controlling comfort of apps and single sign ons, and recoup their investments via advertising and datamining. The editorial by Doc Searls in the June 2014 edition of Linux Journal crystalized it for me: the Web as we know it is evolving in a way that benefits those corporations, and those corporations benefit again by trading free entertainment for users' data. There are other problems too, like the filter effect of people being enabled to more stringently than ever select what information they want to be exposed to, and technologies like the Google search engine, that strengthen that effect to the detriment of contrary view points. So much for the Internet being a new era of universal enlightenment and sharing.

But this melancholy point of view takes shape while reflecting on what I do on-line, and with whom, and that brings me to the subject of on-line community. Continue reading "Making Communities, Breaking Communities"

Categories: Tech
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The Last Drop of Water

One day, the taps simply ran dry. No water. The only way to truly understand what that means is to live through it, to experience it, to suffer through it. Only then do you realize that all the other problems about which you complain are nothing in comparison, that your squatter neighbors live some version of this tragedy every day of their lives. And then you recognize how precarious human existence truly is on this earth.

We learned later - the hard way, of course - that Senegal’s Presqu’Ile of Dakar depends almost entirely for its water supply from a reservoir just south of the Senegal river, carried through a pressurized conduit to the capital. Precarious, but Manhattan has a similar relationship with the Adirondack Mountains, actually. And a critical Y-fitting in the conduit had been damaged, with no replacement piece available. Suddenly, we were dry. The news got worse before it got better: the repair would take nearly two weeks. Continue reading "The Last Drop of Water"

Categories: Senegal
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September, 2013: Berlin, the city we skipped the last time because it was too long a train trip for the kids. Ericka, whose name was chosen by a father who though he admired the place. Diego and Valentina, world travelers and both so blond they fit right in without any German so much as casting a second glance in their direction. So it was as we landed in Shönefeld Airport, the airstrip that previously serviced East Germany. Continue reading "Berlin"

Categories: Germany
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September 2013: Despite the fringe of dryness in the deciduous trees, Lisbon remains steadfastly in late summer, and by mid-afternoon it's positively hot in the sun, which shines off the tiles of the pracas. Dakar is hot and rainy as we travel, we're told.

But despite the beauty and the old-world charm of Lisbon, I find myself feeling pity for it: Portugal's macro-economy is a mess, and the nation is in economic free fall. The whole capital looks and feels ragged: still charming and antiquated, but those two words are only a notch away from dilapidated and decrepit. What happened here? Continue reading "Lisbon"

Categories: Portugal
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Trackball Nirvana

Kensington Orbit

Sometimes, you are just drawn to a technology or a tool, there's no explanation, and there's no going back. That's the way it was with me and trackballs: I'd only had a laptop for a few months when I discovered trackballs, decided it was my cup of tea, bought one, and have been using them exclusively ever since. In that time – almost fifteen years, at this point – I have used a lot of different trackballs. Each one is almost great, but missing one thing. This is the story of my quest for trackball nirvana. Continue reading "Trackball Nirvana"

Categories: Tech
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Democracy Matters in Guinea Bissau

election urn, Guinea Bissau

Witnessing the electoral process unfold in Guinea Bissau reminded me how important democracy is to those who need it most, and how unappreciated it is by those who have enjoyed it the longest. As if I needed a reminder, I turned out shortly past sunrise to one of several polling stations, where not only were the officials ready to go, but the people had turned out in droves and were waiting patiently and anxiously to vote.

I'd like to say I "protected" democracy, or "defended" it. In fact, I only observed it and somewhat amateurishly, at that. But I was impressed by how seriously everyone took their civic duties, and the vibration of urgency, anxiety, and importance, with which the Bissau Guineans carried out their responsibilities. I remember well another country whose 30% rate of participation bodes poorly for engaged, conscientious population that holds its government accountable.

Ever wonder what democracy looks like? Have a look at this picture. Wondering what it does not look like? Read my Dictator's Handbook.

Categories: Guinea Bissau
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Bissau, Guinea Bissau

The wheels of our 20-seater aircraft clattered to a halt at the Oviedo airport, and we stepped out into the tropical heat. Guinea Bissau, and I was here because hell, when else would I have a chance? I reel at the absurdity of the situation, and yet Bissau was a wonderful surprise and I returned "home" a few days later charmed indeed.

Maybe it was the tropical greenery, a welcome cry from the sparse sterility of the Sahel: mangos and coconut palms towered above us and the entire city – a village of 400,000, really – was tufted with trees and plant-life. Stains on the concrete alluded to a humid life at riverside; deep concrete ditches along city streets evoked the torrents that would run through them when the rain clouds gathered and the sky blackened in the rainy season. I know those rains well from Nicaragua, and in fact the more I reflected on it, the more Guinea Bissau reminded me of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast: the greenery, the red soils, the lacustrine ambiance, the bright fabrics and dark skin. Continue reading "Bissau"

Categories: Guinea Bissau
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Apps for Android: my personal list

Everyone has their own, preferred constellation of software for their Android devices. But I found to my pleasure that I can manage separate devices while usually only purchasing the software once, and that's allowed me to do some interesting things. Here's what keeps me productive, day to day: Continue reading "Apps for Android: my personal list"

Categories: Tech
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Cotonou in Six Seconds

I don't often publish things here that aren't my own, but I can't resist linking to this fantastic piece of stop-motion video, showing my old home — Cotonou, Benin — over the course of a day.

Cotonou in Motion (Benin, Africa) from Mayeul Akpovi on Vimeo.

A gorgeous bit of work by Mayeul Akpovi, whose last name shows he is probably Beninese himself. Awesome to see Africans taking pride in their home! And damned if it doesn't fill me with a strong nostalgia for the place I called home from 2006–2010. Who'd have thought?

Categories: Benin
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