a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle

Wed, 09 Oct 2013

[15:51] The Weirdest Languages in the World

As you may know, I helped found last year a company called Idibon, where we're building massively scalable natural language processing. The following are some thoughts from our senior data scientist, Tyler Schnoebelen, on the complexities of understanding the complexity of language:

Natural language processing (NLP) is about finding patterns in language - for example, taking heaps of unstructured text and automatically pulling out its structure. The open secret about NLP is that it's very English-centric. English is far and away the language that linguists have worked on the most and it's also the language that has the most available resources for computer science projects (and more data is almost always better in computer science). So one of the best ways to test an NLP system is to try languages other than English. The better that a system can deal with diverse data, the more confident that you can be in its ability to handle unseen data.

The World Atlas of Language Structures evaluates 2,676 different languages in terms of a bunch of different language features. These features include word order, types of sounds, ways of doing negation, and a lot of other things - 192 different language features in total.

So rather than take an English-centric view of the world, WALS allows us take a worldwide view. That is, we evaluate each language in terms of how unusual it is for each feature.

The language that is most different from the majority of all other languages in the world is a verb-initial tonal languages spoken by 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico, known as Chalcatongo Mixtec (aka San Miguel el Grande Mixtec). Number two is spoken in Siberia by 22,000 people: Nenets (that's where we get the word parka from). Number three is Choctaw spoken by about 10,000 people, mostly in Oklahoma.

But here's the rub - some of the weirdest languages in the world are ones you've heard of: German, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, Spanish, and Mandarin. And actually English is #33 in the Language Weirdness Index.

... in spite of being spoken today by over a billion people!


Wed, 26 Oct 2011

[07:26] What I Saw Tonight at Occupy Oakland

Occupy Oakland

I just spent three-plus hours watching a standoff between a phalanx of riot police, and a sizable group of citizens, at the entrance to Frank Ogawa Square at 14th and Broadway in Oakland, CA. I'm back at home, and tired out, but, before I go crash, I wanted to set down a few thoughts which might not fit into 140 characters, while I ponder the little pile of rubber bullets on my kitchen table.

I didn't get there until the crowd had already been tear-gassed at least a couple times. No, I had been idling in my comfortable apartment in San Francisco, poking at Twitter and thinking about going to bed early, until I found myself watching a live video feed of the public demonstration following the eviction of the Occupy Oakland encampment from Frank Ogawa Square. A video shot and streamed live over the Internet from someone's cell phone. I watched this live cell phone video stream, from the comfort of my own home, for about 45 minutes straight. Pause and let that sink in for a moment.

Finally, I just couldn't take it any more, and I had to go down to downtown Oakland to see for myself. I took some photos with my mobile while I was down there, and posted a bunch of tweets.

And I saw something tonight that impressed me greatly. I saw several hundred ordinary people get repeatedly assaulted with concussion grenades and tear gas, and shot at with rubber bullets, and then return, again and again, like nothing had happened.

I saw a lot of anger directed at the police firing the bullets and grenades, which was a shame, because the police aren't actually the reason these people are in the streets. Most police officers are decent, reasonable people, whose worst excess is taking orders from a power structure that no longer prioritizes the welfare of the citizens, whom they, the cops, have sworn to protect. Now these citizens, the ones who have lately been getting screwed out of the chances they thought they had for decent jobs and decent housing and decent education, these same citizens are in the streets, and they are angry, and a bit of that anger overflows, and becomes a glass bottle tossed over the police barricade, and then, suddenly, the street is full of screaming, and people running, and billowing clouds of tear gas.

Through those gas clouds, I saw men and women and more, fleeing and choking and coughing. I saw teenagers and I saw people who could've been in their seventies. I saw the able-bodied and I saw people with canes and in wheelchairs. I saw human beings of every identifiable race and color. I watched them scatter in the face of overwhelming and disproportionate police violence, and I watched them converge again on the police line, as soon as the gas had dissipated. Who on Earth would do such a thing? And why?

Well, these people are just your basic fellow Americans.* They come from innumerable backgrounds and have diverse creeds, but they all want the same thing: They want a country, and a world, in which each and every individual has a fair chance to lead a dignified life. They want everyone to have a fair shot at a decent job, a decent home, a decent education, decent health care, and the means to provide for their kin. With not one person excepted. That's the main difference between us and the Tea Partiers, I think -- we exclude no one.

And that used to be what the American Dream was all about, right? You could be anyone from anywhere, but, if you were willing to work hard, then you too could improve your lot in life. Well, not any more. And the people I saw tonight, these decent, well-meaning Americans, they know it, they are acutely aware of this fact now, and they are bloody well pissed off about it. And they're right to be pissed off. What's a little tear gas, in face of crushing debt, burdensome college loans, medical bills that can't be paid, foreclosure, a declining standard of living, and not much hope for the future otherwise?

Tonight, Oakland, you have a right to be proud of your citizens. And America, yes, and Planet Earth: You have a right to be proud of the people of Oakland. They stood up for you tonight, for all of you. For the idea that you -- and everyone else -- all have a right to lead a decent, dignified life, free of poverty and hunger and debt.

This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better, I fear. But, from what I saw tonight, it will most certainly get better, in the end. Meanwhile, the world is watching.

(* if you are not American, please excuse the rhetorical device.)

Wed, 13 Oct 2010

[16:56] On the Community and Practice of Crisis Mapping

Last week, I attended the 2nd International Conference on Crisis Mapping (aka ICCM 2010) in Cambridge, MA. The conference was a rare opportunity to talk with some of the people doing the most innovative work these days in information technology for humanitarian crisis response and recovery. This year's ICCM was particularly enlivened by the involvement of projects like Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap in humanitarian relief operations over the last year. These are some reflections on what I see as being the salient issues facing the Crisis Mappers community, as represented at the conference.

If this essay's length tries your patience, read Kim Stephens's much, much more concise notes on the four general themes of ICCM instead. Or read this essay first, and then read those notes.

1. Crisis Mapping: Neither "crisis", nor "mapping". Discuss.

Quinn Norton pointed out to me that few (none?) of the IT projects represented at ICCM were specifically intended for mapping humanitarian crises, as such.

Ushahidi, the best represented of those present, was designed to crowdsource operational awareness in emergency situations, to which mapping is only an auxiliary function. Sahana is designed for similar ends, with mapping as but one of many plugins to the main system.

On the other side, OpenStreetMap, for example, is a project to produce free map data, but which only recently became useful in crisis response -- although Mikel Maron and Jesse Robbins accurately foresaw this use as early as 2007. MapAction was perhaps the only "crisis mapping" org represented at the conference, and only DevelopmentSeed's MapBox project comes close to an IT system intended specifically for crisis mapping.

In fact, in spite of the breathless attention paid to crowdsourcing as a practice, the conference itself arguably was not even really about "crowdsourcing for humanitarian relief", as the overwhelming majority of the participants in the discussion sessions on Saturday and Sunday were from large agencies, NGOs, universities, and even the US military.

You might say the conference topic was "IT for humanitarian relief", but that's a rather too broad appellation, and covers all kinds of things that weren't represented there.

So how exactly do we define the community and practice of "Crisis Mapping"? Despite the lack of an adequate definition, I'm going to make repeated reference in the following to "Crisis Mapping", all for the sake of argument. Caveat emptor!

2. Everything in its right place.

The past few months have yielded heated debate about the value of the practice of "crowdsourcing", i.e. the use of loosely coordinated volunteer participants in a knowledge creation or collection task, via the 'Net, SMS, et cetera, to disaster relief proper. The intensity of this debate has been remarkable, and arguably unproductive, but wasn't much aired during the conference, probably due to the nature of the event's organization.

To reiterate briefly: Crowdsourcing technologies (e.g. Ushahidi, e.g. OSM) have the potential to dramatically improve operational awareness for humanitarian crisis responders by distributing the costs and efforts of data collection and curation across a large group of volunteers, sometimes via the Internet. This has been shown to work in practice (Mission 4636, OSM) in Haiti, and is amazing, unprecedented.

The counterargument is that crowdsourcing risksproducing huge volumes of inaccurate data, and is vulnerable to manipulation and abuse. Unlike the Emergency 911 system in the US, which carries legal penalties for false alarms, crowdsourcing techniques lack any effective way to discourage misuse or abuse. Therefore, encouraging humanitarian relief actors to depend on unreliable sources of information irresponsibly chances diverting their attention from hazardous situations where people's lives may be at stake.

In fact, both sides are right. Mission 4636 and OpenStreetMap both very clearly, and somewhat miraculously, provided information that directly enabled crisis responders in Haiti to save the lives of people in danger. The value of crowdsourcing in disaster relief has been undeniably demonstrated.

The key question is how much and what kind of value. Crowdsourced data is absolutely not without potential flaws, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It won't always work perfectly, but we needn't throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Crowdsourcing itself can never be a replacement for traditional intel in humanitarian relief operations, but it can -- and should -- be used responsibly by relief actors to build an accurate picture of the situation on the ground.

As a chap from the US NGA (really) said to me at an information management cluster meeting at the UN Logbase in Port-au-Prince in February, "Unverified information is still better than no information at all!"

3. How to make miracles happen on time.

The elephant in the room is that the considerable utility of crowdsourcing to the international relief operation in Haiti came about with almost no planning or forethought.

Both Mission 4636 and the humanitarian OpenStreetMap response were organized, to one degree or another, on an ad hoc basis in the first few days after the earthquake, relying almost exclusively on people doing their best to employ the resources they had available to the greatest effect they could manage. The OpenStreetMap effort, particularly, had effectively no leadership to speak of, and relied on a wiki page to coordinate the efforts of over 600 volunteers in the first two weeks after the disaster. In fact, haiticrisismap.org, which housed most of the imagery used by OSM editors, was mostly the work of two or three people, particularly Christopher Schmidt at MetaCarta. Nevertheless, Mission 4636 reports were used in relief efforts by the US military's Southern Command, and OpenStreetMap data likewise by at least a dozen international agencies, all by the end of those two weeks.

This, to be blunt, was a bit of a miracle. In some ways, no one is more astounded than we that our efforts bore such fruit. The content of nearly all the discussions at ICCM '10 centered ultimately on the following questions: When the next disaster hits, how can we cause the same miracles to happen on time? When relief agencies start depending on the work of the crowd, how do we ensure that the crowd shows up?

These aren't questions with simple answers. For example, volunteer interest hinges, largely, on media attention. The tragic flooding in Pakistan this summer has adversely impacted ten times as many people as the quake in Haiti, but media attention has been far less strident, with the result that many fewer OSM volunteers have stepped up to contribute. Access to the commercial satellite imagery, which makes collaborative remote editing of OSM possible, has also been much harder to obtain, for similar reasons.

Moreover, every non-profit org, formal or ad-hoc, has to contend with volunteer fatigue. The more acute and immediate a disaster is, the easier it is to focus attention on it, which, again, has made crowdmapping Haiti far easier than Pakistan. The longer a situation wears on, the less urgency a volunteer will feel to act, and the more likely it will become that any given volunteer has other, more pressing things to do.

By the same token, casual volunteers can only be called into service so many times before they start to tune out the requests. Consequently, the "Crisis Mapping" community needs to steward its volunteer strength carefully. What criteria do we use to determine that a disaster is acute enough to warrant mounting a response?

Additionally, since our community's capacities naturally vary with time and with the nature of a given crisis event, how can we best set realistic expectations and maintain relationships of trust with the larger, more formal aid organizations that we seek to support?

4. A world without Web.

Question: What happens when a thousand relief actors deploy to the same disaster zone and all turn on their BGAN units at once?

Answer: Absolutely nothing.

Inmarsat's Broadband Global Area Network, aka BGAN, is a satellite broadband service that provides (ideally) a half a megabit downstream to a transceiver that fits in a backpack. Even though the service can cost as much as US$7.50 a megabyte (!), BGAN nevertheless has unimaginable utility to humanitarian aid workers, who have deployed to a part of the world where the (probably already meager) infrastructure has been totally smashed. BGAN transceivers are comparatively cheap -- thousands of US dollars, instead of, say, tens of thousands -- so nearly everyone has one.

Which means that, if everyone shows up in theater with a BGAN unit, the geosynchronous satellite serving that region becomes overloaded instantly, and nothing gets through. This was the case in Haiti for the first few days after the quake, until Inmarsat re-tasked some of the relevant satellite's antennas, at which point BGAN bandwidth went from absolutely nothing to a mere trickle.

It's tough for those of us blessed with a wealth of Internet access to imagine what this is like. While visiting the MapAction volunteers at Logbase in Port-au-Prince, I volunteered to download them the latest OSM updates over their satellite link.

"See, it's only 14 megabytes," I said.

"14 megabytes??" I was greeted with incredulous horror. "Dear Lord, don't download that!"

(Also, it would have cost something like $100, which I didn't know at the time.)

This means, point blank, that any IT solution intended for use by relief workers in a disaster zone needs to work independently of the Internet. I say this, without pointing fingers, because I keep seeing humanitarian aid tools being proposed and developed by well-intended individuals and organizations -- some of them *quite* large -- that depend on ample network access to be of any use. Seriously, guys. Knock it off.

That same technical ingenuity needs to be put into working out how information technology can be used to coordinate humanitarian aid volunteers, both in *and* out of country, on a minimum of bandwidth, as low tech as possible. Andy Smith of MapAction described, for example, an arrangement that pushes incremental updates of GIS data between an ArcGIS server in the UK and another deployed in a disaster response. Much as I dislike the tech they're using -- which is my problem, not theirs -- this is the right kind of thinking, and we need to see more of it.

5. A time to sow, and a time to reap.

"Crisis Mapping" is an inherently reactive practice. The disaster, whatever it is, has already happened by the time the mapping starts, which isalmost by definition, the worst point in time to do anything. The best time to map a disaster, naturally, is *before* the disaster occurs.

Knowing when a disaster will happen entails an unrealistic degree of prescience, but a lot of research goes into anticipating *where* disasters may occur. The disaster hazard and vulnerability for any given locale can be viably assessed by experts, and the places at greatest risk should be prospectively mapped. In fact, this is one of the goals that Stuart Gill and Galen Evans are pursuing with the GeoNode project, as part of their work in disaster risk management at the World Bank. Similarly, MapAction have started sending pre-emptive missions to vulnerable places, e.g. Nepal, to prevent repeats of the scenario that resulted in Haiti, where the national mapping agency's facilities were destroyed, and their data rendered inaccessible.

Meanwhile, back at the conference, Kate Chapman presented the ongoing work of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team in conducting trainings in Cité Soleil, in Port-au-Prince, and Jamie Lundberg talked about the development of Map Kibera in Nairobi. I would like to see the Crisis Mappers community develop more projects like these. Building local technical capacity is slow, sometimes tedious, and far less glamorous than disaster response. On the other hand, working proactively with communities at risk to develop their resilience to possible future disasters is far, far better than having to help pick up the pieces afterwards.

6. Beware the white man's burden.

As a wealthy, educated white guy, I am probably not even entitled to speak up about this, but I fear that the idea of Crisis Mapping runs a perpetual risk of turning condescending, and even a bit imperialistic, towards those whose homes are being mapped. I believe that we who live far from the misery of poverty need to tread very carefully, and be exceedingly humble, when contemplating action ostensibly on behalf of people who are suffering. I observe, without meaning to criticize anyone, that though the name "Haiti" was in the explicit theme of ICCM '10, I nevertheless saw precisely one person from Haiti (Kurt Jean-Charles, from noula.ht) at the conference. To be a responsible practice, Crisis Mapping needs to be fully inclusive, and incorporate the voices and expertise of people who live in the places where the mapping takes place.

A great place to start would be to follow Emily Jacobi's suggestion of raising funds to enable members of the Crisis Mappers community from outside the US and Europe to attend ICCM 2011. The OpenStreetMap community has done this for the last two State of the Map conferences, with reasonable success. A word of warning to next year's organizers, though -- even this little can backfire: In 2010, 7 out of the 15 recipients of "scholarships" to this year's State of the Map were denied visas by EU governments at the last minute, including Guensmork Alcin, an OSM organizer from, yes, Haiti.

7. The rise of the pro-am humanitarian.

Another interesting trend to appear in the past year of Crisis Mapping is the rise in prominence of the "pro-am humanitarian". The quintessential example is Todd Huffman, who runs, with a partner, a beer-for-data program out of a compound in Jalalabad, and has the formal support of... no one at all. He works as a consultant for a number of organizations, and seems to usually get his travel expenses paid, but ultimately humanitarian relief is, in his own words, a hobby and not a profession. This distinction, Todd claims, gives him the freedom to move quickly, and to accomplish things that would be difficult or impossible for others with more substantial backing.

To be fair, this breed of humanitarian worker is hardly new, and Todd is hardly the only example. Everyone in MapAction, everyone involved in the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, and many of the people involved in Mission 4636 were and are committed volunteers, amateurs with professional-grade skills. These "pro-am humanitarians", and the organizations they work with, have demonstrated an ability to accomplish things that would be very difficult for any UN agency or large NGO to manage, on account of their size and speed.

The future, I think, of "Crisis Mapping", whatever it may become, will lie in these two sets of crisis relief participants, professional and pro-am, in learning to build trust, and in starting to work together in a way that leverages the respective strengths of each. We have seen this work once before, but a little haphazardly. Now we need to take the much harder step of learning how to make the miracles happen reliably and on time, before the next time they are needed.

Tue, 16 Feb 2010

[23:47] God's Own Forsaken Country

Our flat in Port-au-Prince -- Pétionville, actually -- two flats, actually -- well, our two flats in Pétionville are right next to the (former?) Romanian consulate, right across from the Brazilian consulate, and just down the street from Place Boyer, a very nice green bit of park; or it was, at least, right up until last month, when it became an IDP camp.

An Internally Displaced Persons camp is identical to a refugee camp, except that the accepted international definition of "refugee" involves someone who has fled across an international border to wind up at their camp. Since the Pótoprinsiens who are living in the park down the street are actually from this neighborhood, the nomenclature by which they are regarded is the rather verbose phrase "Internally Displaced Persons"; hence, "IDP camp."

Now, slums outside of the developed West are always an assault on the senses, and the main difference between an IDP camp and a slum, as far as I can make out, is only one of relative age. Slums are crowded, chaotic, noisy, and, above all, they stink. An IDP camp smells just like a slum, and, from what I have seen, slums smell pretty much the same, all round the world: They reek of garbage, rotting garbage, burning garbage, human bodily waste, and, occasionally, strong cooking smells. This particular melange, born of people living in close quarters with little-to-no running water or adequate sanitation, is basically impossible to forget, once experienced. That is what our neighborhood smells like.

To be fair, this is Pétionville, up in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince, and so the IDP campers here are fairly well-to-do. They camp in Coleman tents, and have big Christian revival concerts pretty much every night with a drum kit and a PA system and amplified instruments. The camp seems well organized as such things go -- the residents have, for example, kept clear the original walking paths of the park. I have even seen kids in the camp checking their email on laptops.

A month ago, a third of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were severely damaged or destroyed. The problem is, no one knows which of the two-thirds still standing are actually safe, and which are only waiting to cave in or fall over. The Haitian people regard themselves, justly, I think, as being both resilient and resourceful to the extreme, having been put to it by adversity. So these people are all living in the neighborhood park.

Further down the hill, in Delmas, by contrast, the camps run more to tarps and the like. We have even seen camps made basically of nothing beyond corrugated cardboard, tree branches, and string. Since we brought tents, but didn't need them -- quite the contrary -- I gave mine to Erdem within a day of arriving, so that he could relay it to a shelterless family he knew personally.

But the rainy season is going to start soon, and, when it does, everyone will be living in mud, possibly inches deep. There will be flash floods and possibly landslides. There will be mosquitos bearing malaria, and, heaven forfend, one or more of these camps might see a cholera outbreak. Then, in a few more months, to add insult to injury, hurricane season will start.

So I am almost uncomfortable at how comfortable these flats are, two of them, one for me and one for Tom, as a result of the fact that pretty much the entire World Bank's Haiti mission was mired in meetings in snowy DC when we showed up, leaving Erdem, one driver, and two semi-clueless consultants to hold down the fort. In fact, these two flats, in the same building, are the World Bank headquarters in Haiti, because their former office building isn't fit to set foot into any longer. Both apartments are airy, with high ceilings, and glass-paned doors that open on to multiple balconies. The flat downstairs has a broadband Wi-Max connection. The flat upstairs has a breathtaking view, or, would have, if the smog wasn't so bad. And why not? Haiti is the western half of a Caribbean island, with all the scenic magnificence such an appellation implies, from the rugged green mountains, to the rolling, deep-blue sea.

Meanwhile, down below the smog somewhere, lies the capital of a country that was only the second in the New World to throw off its colonial yoke; a country which has been repeatedly invaded by France, Spain, Britain, and the United States; a country that has been crippled by decades of corruption and the failure of the rule of law; a country not more than about 200 miles from the richest in the world, in which our driver earns $18 a day and most of the food in the supermarket is imported; a country that lies both in the path of hurricanes and on a major seismic fault. Few nation-states have been so royally shafted by both history and geography at once.

It is incredible to me how sharp the contrast here is; how Haiti is possessed, simultaneously, incredible natural beauty and of unutterable human misery. I find it very easy to think of this place as "God's Own Forsaken Country".

Sat, 13 Feb 2010

[22:25] Byenvenu nan Pòtoprens!

On the morning of Thursday 13 February, Tom Buckley and I skipped breakfast again, and left the Hotel Embajador in Santo Domingo, with enough time for the taxi to take us back to the World Bank office and retrieve the Hepatitis A vaccine we'd accidentally left in the the fridge the previous evening, before heading to El Higuero airport for the morning UN Humanitarian Air Service flight to Port-au-Prince. In a move born of either genius, desperation, or some combination, Tom seized on the first medical-looking person he found at the airport -- she turned out to be a WHO doctor from somewhere in Latin America -- and had her administer his last immunization, thus relieving me of the responsibility, to everyone's considerable relief.

Check-in for the flight itself was weirdly informal, and the ticket and boarding pass even more so. The plane itself was a vintage de Haviland Dash 8-100, and the other passengers on the flight were an assorted dozen of exactly the kind of people you'd expect to be on a UN charter flight: There was a middle-aged Swiss aid worker, a young Spanish news photographer, our friend the aforementioned Latina doctor and a couple of her colleagues, two or three guys who could have been Canadian firefighters or Belgian civil engineers or something, a few ruddy-faced Northern European UN apparatchiks, and me and Tom. We were the only ones who spoke a single word on the the flight.

The flight itself took an hour, and was very scenic. Entertainingly, we left JBQ at 10am, and arrived at PAP at 10am, due to the time zone difference. Our final approach to PAP took us over a dirt racetrack that I had been using as a visual reference a month previous, while working with the satellite imagery of Port-au-Prince, because it was so visually distinctive from above. Not for a split second in the week or two that I spent marshalling overhead imagery of Haiti for use by the OpenStreetMap community -- most of it later to be folded into Christopher Schmidt's Haiti Crisis Map -- did I imagine that in another couple more weeks I'd be flying right over that racetrack.

The oddest thing about the entire process was that the flight attendant's patter was exactly she would have said in the cabin of an ordinary 747, verbatim, from the safety demonstration, right down to the post-landing taxiway reminder not to open our seatbelts until the plane had taxied to a complete stop and the captain had turned off the "fasten seat belts" light. In fact, just about the only thing she did not say was "Please enjoy your stay in Port-au-Prince," a small favor for which I, at least, was very grateful.

Somehow, it had to be at least 5°C hotter in Port-au-Prince than it had been in Santo Domingo, and about thirty times as humid. We were quickly escorted across the tarmac at PAP, past some repurposed Soviet helicopters, to a baggage claim out of the back of a pickup truck that was, if possible, even more informal than anything that had happened up to that point. Amazingly, the UN Humanitarian Air Service nevertheless still managed to maintain the illusion of being an actual airline, by losing (for a second time) a piece of Tom's luggage, specifically, the bag containing his air mattress.

So there we were, freshly arrived on a special charter flight to an airfield in a disaster zone thousands of miles from home, with only the vaguest idea of our objective there, waiting to meet our contact, who would brief us on our actual mission. The whole thing was getting a bit Mission Impossible, if you know what I mean. While we were waiting, I watched soldiers wander past the terminal, from Japan, Chile, Mexico, Jordan, Malta(!), Uruguay, and the United States, all in the space of about ten minutes.

Our contact finally showed up, in the form of one Erdem Ergin, the World Bank's disaster risk management specialist in Port-au-Prince, of Turkish-Swiss origin, and an absolute whirlwind of energy. He and Tom went off to make one last stab at locating Tom's tent, while I waited with the rest of the luggage, and, in the process, had my first meeting with a native-born resident of Haiti, a man named Jean-Louis, who, within a minute of exchanging of pleasantries, noted that he was looking for work, handed me his CV, and solemnly told me to call his mobile if I needed help with anything at all. I took his CV and, with regret, promised nothing. Byenvenu nan Pòtoprens!

Erdem and Tom returned without Tom's bag, and, by the time the remaining luggage was loaded into the car, Erdem was already simultaneously K-turning his car into oncoming traffic to whisk us off to a meeting, and launching into an endlessly branching braindump on every subject conceivably related to the activities in Haiti in which the World Bank was immediately involved, and what our role in it all would be. Between the various Haitian government agencies and their UN counterparts, it became evident that we were in immediate risk of drowning in alphabet soup: CNIGS, CIAT, MTPTC, UNOPS, UNOSAT, PDNA, EC/JRC, OCHA, MINUSTAH, IDB, USAID. Eventually, Tom and I would have to meet with people from literally each one of these organizations, figure out what the hell they were up to, vis a vis creating and using geographic information, and then try to figure out how they could all work together. That was our mission, in a nutshell.

The key point in all this was that, as consultants to the World Bank, we would be specifically concerned with recovery and reconstruction efforts, and not concerned with humanitarian relief, as such. The World Bank is, well, a bank, and, when the time comes, its role will be to ensure the availability of money and resources for the affected parts of Haiti to rebuild. The focus of our mission in the interim was going to be towards facilitating technical collaboration between the various domestic and international agencies that would be involved in the immediate damage assessment. Also, we were to try to provide technical facilitation for the upcoming inter-agency Post-Disaster Needs Assessment, which, stripped to essentials, would be a gigantic grant proposal to the international community for Haiti's eventual reconstruction. Finally, to the greatest extent possible, we would try to develop plans with domestic agencies for helping them build technical capacity, to allow them to take on as much of the work as possible themselves.

The particular meeting for which we were, at this point, horribly late was with a representative from CIAT, le Commission Inter-ministeriale por l'Amanagement du Territoire, or the Inter-ministerial Land Management Commission, a reasonably new government coordination body with a suddenly very difficult road ahead. I'll spare a detailed description of the scenery along the drive to the meeting, because others have done more justice elsewhere than I can possibly. Put simply, a third of Port-au-Prince was rubble; there were tent villages basically everywhere; and the mass of people, heavy construction vehicles, and military vehicles in the streets made for a nightmare of traffic. Meanwhile, Erdem absolutely talked our ears off about the World Bank's efforts to coordinate the development of recovery plans for Haiti.

"You're very enthusiastic about the recovery work," I observed.

"I lost about thirty or maybe forty people that I knew in the quake," Erdem said, "That night, I was at the CNIGS office, helping to dig out two friends of mine with my bare hands, in the dark, and we got them out, but I heard later that one of them died. Yes, I'm enthusiastic."

The situation with CNIGS, the Haitian national mapping agency, was worse than I had originally understood. The senior staff of the agency was having a management meeting, when suddenly the building fell on them. They just happened to have had a computer lab set up across three trailers outside the building, in anticipation of a move to a new building financed by the European Commission -- now on hold indefinitely, since the quake -- otherwise, they'd have had absolutely nothing left for the remaining staff of 38 people to work with at all. One of our main objectives was going to be to solicit a detailed needs assessment from the members of CNIGS, and try to get the World Bank to find donors to get them them back on their feet and integrated with the recovery effort.

We finally arrived at our meeting with CIAT, and, after meeting a bewildering array of individuals, we sat down to talk with one of the commission's directors. I regret to confess that I remember almost nothing about our very first meeting in Port-au-Prince for the following two reasons: First off, Tom and I had by this point been on the move for about eight hours, having skipped breakfast, and having had nothing for lunch, beyond a couple Clif bars and a handful of dried fruit. Second, and more importantly, the entire meeting was conducted in French.

Oh, sure, I studied French in high school, and then took three semesters in college. I could get around Paris and Brussels and Lausanne and generally make myself understood, but it hadn't seriously occurred to me until then that this would be nothing compared to following, much less actively participating in, a technically detailed and very cautiously diplomatic discussion about the ways and means of land use planning in post-disaster economic recovery. I think between that, and a serious desire for a five-course lunch, I picked up about every sixth word. I felt like such an American.

God bless Tom, because, American or no, he had just then proved worth his weight in gold: On top of all of his other skills, Tom was not only following this interminably long and probably utterly necessary meeting, but he was also actively participating. Where, in Santo Domingo, my weakly superior Spanish had got us around town and negotiated successfully with taxi drivers and so on, Tom's facility with the French language was going to save our mission in Port-au-Prince.

I leaned back and rested my aching head on the wall behind me. I could tell it was going to be a long couple of weeks.

Fri, 12 Feb 2010

[02:20] Stuck Inside of Santo Domingo (With the Haiti Blues Again)

Wednesday was a comedy of errors. Not a tragedy, a comedy; but one of errors, all the same.

The night before, just as I was arriving at the lovely Hotel Barceló Lina in Santo Domingo, I got an email from my mission partner, Tom Buckley, who was supposed to be leaving around then from DC. The email said, simply, "I'm waiting on a flight from Pittsburgh to Miami." Wait, Pittsburgh?

I fell asleep and woke up to an email from Tom, sent at around 10pm, saying "I don't think I'm going to make it tonight...." and, then, finally, one last email, sent at 1am, saying "I'm here at the hotel, see you in the morning." *blink*

I let Tom sleep until about 9:30am, and then called his room to rouse him, so that we could head down to the World Bank office and find out how the heck we were supposed to get to Haiti, exactly. We met in the lobby. Tom had evidently packed very carefully, because he only had a single, smallish backpack. I was impressed.

"The airlines lost my luggage," he said simply. What had happened was this: As yet another massive snowstorm was bearing down on Washington on Tuesday night, and DCA was on point of closing, Tom had plead with the American Airlines staff to put him on any damn flight where they could find him a seat, anything, just to give him the proverbial snowball's chance to making it to Santo Domingo by dawn. Pittsburgh was evidently the best they could manage, so Tom flew from Washington to Pittsburgh, changed airlines for a flight to Miami, and arrived 15 minutes too late to make his connection to the DR -- except that, for whatever reason, the Miami-Santo Domingo flight was delayed by exactly that much. Tom ran for the flight, and made it to the DR by the skin of his teeth. His luggage, however, was another story.

One bright spot was that Tom had fetched us from Washington two shiny new Blackberry Storm 9700s, complete with SIMs and tethered data plans, courtesy of the World Bank. When Tom handed me the Blackberry, it felt like Arthur and the Lady of the Lake, or maybe more like Super Mario and the mushroom. By the power of Greyskull! (sound of trumpets)

We skipped breakfast and went straight to the World Bank office, where we arrived basically unannounced. We had neglected to get a specific contact there, so when we turned up, there was a bit of confusion on the part of the staff over who exactly were these hippie backpackers cluttering up their office entrance. Fortunately, we finally thought to recite the magic words "We're here on a mission" -- not wholly unlike the Blues Brothers' mantra -- and the receptionist, who was unfailingly sweet and helpful, directed us to Cairo Arevalo Arias, a Guatemalan Nicaraguan saint (sorry, Cairo), and also the Bank's logistics specialist in SD. I can fairly say that, without Cairo, we probably would never have made it to Haiti.

"We have you booked on the UN flight to Port-au-Prince at 10am tomorrow morning," Cairo said, which was a mixed blessing. Up until that point, we'd had no idea if we'd have to take an eight hour bus, or walk, or what. I was impatient to get there and get to work -- but Tom wasn't going to fare very well without his equally meticulously packed luggage, and, what's more, he still hadn't gotten any immunization shots, because of the weather in DC.

"We don't provide immunizations in Santo Domingo," Cairo said, and then added, "But we can call some clinics and see if they can help you today."

"If we're leaving tomorrow, where can we stay tonight?" I asked.

"Don't you have a hotel room?" he replied.

"Uh, no. We were only booked into the Barceló Lina for one night. We were told we'd be leaving for Port-au-Prince today."

"And all the hotels in Santo Domingo are booked," Cairo said. I could just imagine him reciting special Guatemalan Nicaraguan profanities in his head. "Never mind," he said, "We will work something out." Tom started phoning up American Airlines to harangue them about his missing luggage, a chore he embarked upon at regular intervals during the day. Truth be told, I was grateful for a day spent in a clean, air-conditioned office with power and a perfectly good network.

Around mid-day, Cairo informed us that he was headed out to lunch. I asked if he minded if we might join him, partly for the company, and partly to pump him for information about the situation on the ground in Haiti, because Tom and I still knew basically nothing. Cairo replied that he was having lunch with a friend. Oh? We didn't want to impose. No, no, he didn't mind.

It turned out that his lunch date destination was that bastion of traditional Dominican cuisine, Taco Bell. This was actually fine by us, because it represented some notional last shred of predictability, before we flung ourselves into the slavering jaws of an unknown fate. It also turned out that the lunch date itself was with a very soft-spoken young woman who smiled a lot and spoke absolutely no English, and she was very very nice about us hijacking her lunch date to talk about the situation in Port-au-Prince.

God bless him, Cairo did manage to find us rooms at the Hotel Embajador, and even escorted us to the clinic, where the brash New York Dominican doctor refused to give either of us more than two shots that day, for reasons of safety, which was funny to me, because the doctor I saw in New York didn't seem nearly as conscientious. The doctor's assistant gave Tom vaccinations for Hepatitis B and for seasonal influenza. She made me watch, because, given that there'd be no time to return the following morning, I was going to have to be the one to administer his Hep A shot. Worse yet, the vaccine had to be kept refrigerated somehow. The doctor also promised us antibiotics for traveller's diarrhea, which we almost left the clinic without, and malaria meds for Tom, which we did leave the clinic without.

Blessedly, Tom's luggage turned up, and was delivered to the office just before we left for the hotel. Of course, when we did leave the office for the hotel, we also left the Hep A vaccine in the fridge.

Mind you, I've left out about half of the petty dramas we encountered over the course of the day, and I mostly relate this inane narrative to give the flavor of what we were experiencing. Please don't get me wrong, if I could fill out a customer service card for the World Bank staff in Santo Domingo (and Cairo, in particular) I would rate them 5 stars in every category. Still, given all the chaos, I'd had the distinct and unerring feeling that no one had ever before tried to do what we were attempting, as if aid workers hadn't been streaming through Santo Domingo all month.

I guess Tom had been sort of thinking along similar lines. Earlier, on the way back from the clinic, he'd asked Cairo very pointedly, "What were the logistics like here in Santo Domingo immediately after the earthquake in Haiti?"

"Very confusing," said Cairo, "Very confusing."

"I can well imagine," I said absentmindedly, and then immediately regretted it.

"No," Cairo said flatly, "You can't."

Wed, 10 Feb 2010

[08:43] On walking into a disaster zone

Since mid-January, we've seen a whole set of interlocking technical communities swung into gear to piece together geographic information to help relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti: OpenStreetMap, Ushahidi, CrisisMappers, and so on. The most amazing thing to me about this global response to the disaster is the degree to which volunteers have been able to make a significant impact on the relief situation while sitting at their own desks, thousands of miles away. OpenStreetMap, particularly, has been a model of distributed collaboration, with basically no one calling the shots, while a thousand people painstakingly build a map database of Haiti drawn from aerial and satellite imagery that's so detailed that the Ushahidi volunteers have to ask for a simpler version.

So, given how much so many have accomplished without even being there, I was a little surprised when Andrew Turner pinged me on Monday 1 February, to asked if I was willing to go to Haiti on Wednesday. The World Bank was looking for technical GIS professionals, ideally French-speaking, to go and advise the government, he said, and he'd recommended me for the mission. Really? Thanks. I can sort of speak French. Sure, why not?

Actually, my girlfriend and my family had quite a few pretty good reasons why not. You're walking into a disaster zone. Where are you staying? What will you do? How will you get food and water? Will you be safe? You might get hurt. You might go mad. You might regret going. Are you kidding? This is a chance to serve, on the ground, in a humanitarian relief mission. I can't not go. May God bless all my loved ones; when they saw I was determined to go, they became nothing but supportive.

The thing was, it wasn't clear at all that I would in fact be going to Haiti. Wednesday came and went with no particular answers to any of my questions. Poor Andrew must have fielded several emails, IMs, and calls from me over those couple days, pressing him urgently for the slightest detail. Finally, on Thursday, I got a call from Stuart Gill, Andrew's contact at the World Bank.

The Centre National de l'Information Géo-Spatiale, or CNIGS, Stuart explained, is Haiti's national mapping bureau. They have a staff of about 30-40 people, and an office that emerged relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, their senior management perished in the disaster, and, due to budget constraints, much of the geographic data they have to work with dates back six or eight years.

I would go to Port-au-Prince with Tom Buckley, a colleague of Andrew's, bringing with us a portable hard drive prepared by Andrew et al. containing a terabyte of up-to-date geographic data. Tom and I would visit the CNIGS in Port-au-Prince, and find out what they needed in order to best serve the other government ministries in the process of relief and reconstruction. Meanwhile, we would provide whatever technical services the World Bank staff in Port-au-Prince might happen to need. The Bank would provide us with mobile phones with tethering capability for network access. We would come to the Bank's office in DC on Monday 9 February for a briefing and immunization shots, and then we'd fly to the Dominican Republic first thing Tuesday.

"You should be aware of the situation you're walking into," Stuart said, "Another earthquake could happen, and we might not be able to get you out right away. After the first earthquake, our building was destroyed, and the staff wound up camping on the lawn for two days without food or water." Right, got it. Later that day, Stuart sent a cryptically brief email: Bring a tent, if you can. Oh, man.

Meanwhile, I somewhat optimistically went shopping. How do you pack to visit a disaster area? I figured, God help me, it had to be like packing for a camping trip. Shelter, bedding, clothes, food, water, first aid and meds. Everything has to be packed in a way that it can be carried a longish walking distance. My father talked me out of trying to bring enough MREs for two weeks; bring just enough food to get you home, he insisted, in case you have to leave in a hurry. Lauren talked me into bringing an air mattress. I balked at the weight, but she rightly pointed out that the pain of carrying it was going to be nothing compared to the pain of sleeping on or near the ground for two weeks. Meanwhile, I started to suffer pangs of guilt over buying, say, new hiking shoes, while people in Port-au-Prince were scrambling to find food, but what was I to do? If I didn't come properly outfitted, I wasn't going to be of any use to anyone.

My packing list wound up looking more or less like this:

A shoulder bag, never to leave said shoulder, per Lauren's suggestion, containing:

  • notebook
  • 2 pens
  • passport
  • cash and a credit card
  • prescription meds
  • clip-on sunglasses
  • iodine tablets (for water purification)
  • insect repellant (carry-on size)
  • hand sanitizer (ditto)
  • sunblock (ditto)
  • toothpaste (ditto)
  • toothbrush
  • dental floss
  • earplugs
  • eyeshade
  • 2 USB flash drives
  • USB Bluetooth adapter
  • mini-to-USB cable
  • Acer Aspire One netbook
  • power adapter for same
  • earbud headphones
  • mobile phone and/or GPS
  • the most recent issue of the Economist

Attached to the outside of the shoulder bag:

  • Canon PowerShot digital camera (in pouch)
  • 1 liter steel water bottle
  • LED headlamp
  • travel pillow

A large duffle bag, containing:

  • 4 light button-down shirts
  • 4 pair trousers
  • 4 pair undergarments, top and bottom
  • 4 pair lightweight hiking socks
  • sun hat
  • camp towel
  • wash cloth
  • additional pillow case (to stuff with clothing, basically)
  • Garmin Geko 301 GPS receiver
  • Canon PowerShot battery charger
  • backup LED flashlight
  • 4 MREs
  • 24 Clif bars (for managing hypoglycemia)
  • 4 packs of Orbit chewing gum
  • "2 person" tent
  • air mattress
  • battery powered pump (I wanted a foot pump, but they weigh basically the same)

The duffle bag also contains a toiletry bag which contains:

  • plastic case containing bandages and disinfectant wipes
  • three tubes of generic Airborne. Emergen-C would work too.
  • backup prescription meds
  • backup toothpaste
  • backup sunscreen
  • neosporin
  • ibuprofen
  • claritin
  • immodium
  • bar of Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap in plastic case
  • 1/2 oz. tube of deodorant stick

Surprisingly enough, the whole thing weighs maybe 40 pounds. The shoulder bag is small and convenient and I almost don't notice carrying it, even with the netbook in. Props go to Lauren, for talking me out of trying to pack everything, including the tent, into the duffle; and to my housemate, Cristina, for letting me borrow her large duffle bag, when it transpired that mine had a gigantic hole in the bottom.

While all this was happening, disaster nearly struck, not in Haiti, but in Washington, DC, which got hit by two plus feet of snow on Friday, shutting down the World Bank, just as Stuart and his colleagues were supposed to be making the final administrative arrangements to send us out. Suddenly, all was thrown into chaos. On Monday morning, the Bank's offices were still closed, and Stuart called to say that the earliest they could send us out was Thursday. Then, a couple of hours later, an email saying "Nevermind, we'll just fly you directly to Santo Domingo tomorrow morning, find a travel clinic and get your shots."

So I ran out and got jabs for typhoid, hepatitis A & B, and, just for good measure, H1N1, along with prescriptions for Cipro and for Malarone, a malaria preventative that apparently does not induce psychosis. Wonderful. Meanwhile, a travel agent called to say I'd be flying out of JFK the following morning. I almost couldn't sleep that night. I kept thinking about Alan Shepard in The Right Stuff, waiting in the capsule on top of the Atlas missile, saying to himself "Dear God, please don't let me fuck up..."

The flight to Santo Domingo itself was painless. The Bank put us up in the Barceló Lina, a very nice hotel in the middle of town; nice of them, I suppose, to offer a little bit of comfort before sending us into a disaster zone. A cab ride ride from the airport costs $40 and takes almost an hour. The cab driver asked me what I was doing in the Dominican Republic, and when I told him, he said (and I paraphrase), "Ay, la Republica Dominicana tiene la buena suerte; Haiti tiene la suerte muy muy mala." Indeed.

Thu, 05 Nov 2009

[01:27] On Winning the Dot-Com Lottery

I'm going to preface this post by saying that I'm sure that wiser heads than I somewhere out there on the Internets have already said everything I'm going to say, and in greater depth than I could hope to say it. If you feel more comfortable doing so, please read this essay as satire.

I want to talk about winning the Dot-Com Lottery. I call it a lottery because there's a strong component of luck, but the reward can be substantial. It's just like having your garage band sign a multimillion dollar contract with a major record label. Lots of people play guitar with a dream in their heart, but not many people get rich doing it. The point in trying to win valuable cash prizes in the Dot-Com Lottery is to be able to spend your time (before and after) pursuing your passions, whatever they are.

I know someone who has a technology business which makes a product that they sell at a modest profit. Someday he might sell the company and retire. That's the time-honored way to build a business, and it's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about all the friends and acquaintances of mine who've cashed in on tech startups built around their passions over the years, and the basic ingredients I see in each of their stories.

The difference between the Dot-Com Lottery and the kind of lottery that supports senior citizens is that not every ticket has the same chance of winning. You can improve your odds. The following points are what I see as the five sine qua non for getting the best chance of buying a winning ticket.

1. You need to be smart. Hell, why hedge this point: You have to be a genius, along with everyone else on your core team. Everyone I've ever known who's launched and sold a tech startup has been among the smartest or, at least, savviest people I know. You already know who I mean.

2. You need to have a product idea that is too simple to fail. You need to be smart enough to focus on a product idea that everyone wants (even if they don't know it yet), and you have to deliver it in such a clear and simple way that people can't not use it.

I think it's hard for smart people to focus on a simple idea without dismissing it as trivial, but the elevator pitch for every big tech startup I can think of isn't even an elevator pitch, it's a noun phrase. Moreover, it's almost always a noun phrase composed of words of two syllables or less. These days the phrase starts with "a place to share _____". Examples:

  • Flickr is "a place to share your photos"
  • Delicious is "a place to share your bookmarks"
  • Dopplr is "a place to share your travel plans"
  • Twitter is "a place to share your status"

Other examples are left as an exercise for the reader. ;-)

Also, not only does your product have to be simple, but your delivery has to be as flawless as possible. Every time you add a button or a link to a web page, you increase the chances that people aren't going to use the thing. Witness, for example, the clean original designs of Delicious and Flickr and Dopplr and Twitter.

You'll note that I haven't asserted that an acquireable startup actually needs a viable business model at any point. You don't. You do need what Kellan calls a "revenue story," which is about how your VCs or your prospective corporate overlords *might* make money on your service, if they want to go to all the bother. This is one place where your compellingly MBA-like co-founder will be of substantial service (of which more later).

3. You need to be 100% passionate about your product. You need to be building something you want. Your team not only has to build it, but they must also be its most avid users. In Free Software, we call this "scratching your own itch."

However, you do have to pace yourself. Launching any successful startup is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to work hard and be patient. Expect it to take 2-3 years before it's even worth worrying about why you haven't hit the knee of your uptake curve yet.

The deal is that part of what defines most alpha geeks is that they are early adopters, i.e, intellectual sprinters. It's all too easy to lead oneself up the garden path, or to burn out fast. Kellan pointed out to me that most successful tech companies have at least one really disciplined person who can play the hard-ass. This individual can be either a geek-minded MBA, or an MBA-minded geek. It can be tough for an alpha geek to willingly subject themselves to this kind of stubborn catherding, but somebody has to keep the geeks on track.

Maybe your geeks will get bored anyway. Maybe your product idea will turn out to be crap. You can change tack somewhat before your funding runs out (e.g. Odeo and Twitter, or Dopplr's social atlas feature), but all five of these theses apply doubly at that point.

4. You need to know the right people. Again, this seems tautological, because nearly every startup has to get seed funding from somewhere, but knowing or finding a few good VCs is a condition that a logician might refer to as "necessary but not sufficient."

When a bunch of alpha geeks launch a technology product, by definition, their peers among the tech innovators and early adopters will be the first to try it out. If these folks continue using the site or product long enough for the leading edge of the mainstream to take note, then you're starting to look like acquisition material. (If you don't get or choose not to sell before then, you're going to wind up having to issue an IPO, or resign yourself to finding a real profit model. I'm looking at you, Facebook. You too, Twitter.)

That means you must evangelize (in a respectful and non-irritating way) the hell out of your product to everyone you know, and be really attentive to your first couple thousand users, who will hopefully be all of your friends and colleagues. You want them to feel as enthusiastic as you do for your product. If you're really lucky, your new converts will happen to be way over on the left side of the power-law curve of influential technologists, possibly because they were already the people you knew to begin with.

While you're doing this, you also need to solicit the opinions and advice of said first couple or ten thousand users (in a respectful, non-irritating way) constantly, and, more to the point, you need to act on their feedback as quickly as you possibly can. You may become fortunate enough to create a (dare I say it) feedback loop that will give your users a sense of participation and engagement *and* provide them with an increasingly valuable product. That's what will keep them coming back long enough to draw in the early majority, and, hopefully, behind them the mainstream.

5. You have to be really, really lucky. A lot of the luck comes in being early to market, but not too early to market. Launching a service two years too soon can be as fatal as launching it two years too late. All the same, if you're not first to market, you can still win *if* you do score on all other points.

Remember, this is a lottery we're talking about, but not every ticket has the same chances of winning. As Benjamin Franklin, that patron saint of tech innovators, once observed, "God helps those who help themselves."

A few weeks ago, when this essay started coalescing in my mind, I was planning to review startups past and present, and predict that Dopplr was next in line for a big corporate acquisition, because they seemed to be the closest of any startup I know to having all five of these points down. Today, uttering this prognostication seems slightly less prescient than it did the week before last. But I'll go out on the next limb and bet on Foursquare, probably around late 2011 or early 2012. :)

Wed, 11 Feb 2009

[11:53] Blatant Self-Promotion

Hi, folks! Long time no see! For those of you not already in the know, I'm living in Brooklyn, my ancestral homeland, and heading up a small software consultancy with a handful of part-timeengineers and an office out in East Williamsburg. More on that later, perhaps.

In the meantime, however, we're in between contracts, and I'm looking to pick up a bit of short-term work pronto to tide me over. My CV is here, of course. Right now, I'm keen to work on just about anything that doesn't need a user interface, but I don't have to be too picky about that. Have a mad idea that needs implementing or need help with something ongoing? Email me!

Sun, 15 Oct 2006

[23:51] The Wall in the Head

Having done almost no practical research ahead of time, I got off the train at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, having been assured by an Irish person on her way to a Pearl Jam concert in town that night (really) that it was right in the center of town, and for certain there would be hostels and the like right nearby. So naturally I find my way out of the train station, smack into... a vast expanse of apparently nothing: huge parking lots on all sides, the river Spree, the lights of buildings twinkling in the distance. Screw this, I thought, and showing a cabbie a list of places recommended to me in Brussels by a very nice lady from the Open Usability Project, politely asked him to take me to the nearest locale that had a hostel nearby, which turned out to be a district called Kreuzberg.

So far so good, except that on the particular weekend I chose to visit Berlin, the city was geared up to play host to both the annual Berlin Marathon (where, according to Wikipedia, the world's record in men's marathon times was established in 2003 on account of the city being so flat) and also Popkomm, Germany's leading annual music industry conference and tradeshow, which had recently moved from Cologne. The upshot of all which was, of course, that the pair of adjacent hostels that the cabbie very solicitously delivered me to, and indeed every hostel or other moderately priced place of lodging within cycling distance of Kreuzberg, was altogether booked up solid for the weekend, a fact which I ascertained only as part of a more elaborate process that ultimately involved throwing down several euro coins in an attempt to learn precisely how German payphones are meant to function, while the bartender in the bar next door, a trustworthy seeming chap, kept an eye on my stuff.

The only other plans I had made for the entire weekend involved an invitation by Jan, a mutual friend of Mako's whom I'd previously met on the media arts circuit in Milan, to attend some dodgy-seeming music performance art thing that evening. By this point it was nearly 2300, and having resolved to find the gaff containing this musical whatnot forthwith and thereby cast my fate to the winds, you may imagine then, the not-insignificant relief I experienced on checking my email to discover that Jan had not only provided a link to the concert event in question, but had also graciously held forth the use of his spare bedroom in the event that I elected not to stay in a hostel, mirabile dictu.

The barkeep proffered a tourist map, and, on offering directions to the club in Alexanderplatz, laconically recommended I cycle up Wilhelmstraße. "It is historic," he opined, a bit of commentary that eluded me and subsequently passed out of mind completely, until after a kilometer or so, I found myself suddenly and without warning at none other than Checkpoint Charlie itself. There is little to see there today, beyond the guardhouse, some heaped sandbags, the notorious "You are leaving the American sector" advisory (a replica; the original is kept in the museum down the block), and a pillar supporting a large lighted sign bearing a photo of a fresh-faced young man in a Red Army dress uniform, the very image of the stalwart defense of Communism itself, staring coolly over the border into imperialist West Berlin. On the reverse of the sign, his brave, freedom-defending American counterpart is depicted gazing confidently towards godless East Berlin. Across the street sits a building with the legend Tschechisches Zentrum, under which it reads, in English, and with tongue firmly planted in cheek -- what else? -- "Czech Point". It was right around here that a couple with with distinctly German accents stopped to me ask me directions to Unter den Linden.

Alexanderplatz wasn't much further, and, asking some disaffected local youth to confirm my understanding of the club's website -- Babelfish's rendition thereof having been actually less comprehensible in English than the original German -- I determined that the club was, in fact, inexplicably above the McDonalds, at which point I became thoroughly perplexed and wasted a couple more euros trying to use a payphone to call Jan, who finally came down and fetched me. The club was tiny and weirdly laid out, but homey in that European media artist dive sort of way, with refrigerators behind the bar that apparently proclaimed their contents with the scrolling LED marquees which I have come to suspect the Germans harbor a secret weakness for, but the beer was cheap and so Jan and I got caught up while the first act set up.

The act, a woman variously known as "marzipan marzipan", "Zelda Pound", or simply "zelda panda", played guitar and sang over tape loops, which had the potential to be terrible but was ultimately so winsome that I approached her afterwards and purchased a CD, one that turned out to have been recorded live at WFMU in, of all places, Newark, New Jersey. By the time she was done, we had gotten progressively drunker, having struck up a conversation with an American expat freelance journalist who bore a shocking resemblance to my old housemate gweeds, and his svelte Danish girlfriend, a marketroid of some description in town from Copenhagen for the weekend, who suggested we switch to vodka shots. I still find it odd to hear American accents on strangers in European cities. The second act opened with a man in reflective gold mylar tutu playing the Imperial March from Star Wars in a slow swing on the trumpet, which was followed by two women in matching gold mylar tutus singing and chanting over, you guessed it, tape loops, while they made with various antics of a theatrical nature, singing odes to glowstick stars and popping latex balloons with their high heels and so on. At one point one of them attached a helium balloon bearing a headshot of Sigmund Freud to the back of her head, and then, turning her back to the audience, proceeded to wrap her arms around herself and writhe about as if making out (with Sigmund Freud?) while the other chanted something into the microphone which Jan could not quite translate for me, but which he assured me was quite humorous. Imagine, if you will, Yoko Ono reincarnated as a pair of German woman in gold mylar tutus, one short and blonde, and the other lanky and brunette, and you have something of the essential gist.

After this, we were pretty sozzled, and opted to abscond chez Jan, which turned out to be right around the corner, on the eleventh floor of a huge apartment building that he hypothesized must have once been intended exclusively for prominent Party apparatchiks, given its size and location right smack in the center of town. The place was enormous, and probably quite inexpensive, and complete with a terrific view of Alexanderplatz and the disco ball tower behind, still prominently showing a bit of World Cup propaganda. I tried to imagine the throngs that gathered in the square immediately below on the days before the Wall fell. Then the vodka asserted itself, and unconsciousness followed.

The following morning was magnificently sunny and clear, and after breakfast I set off to see the city by bicycle, cycling around Friedrichshain, up the hill and through the lovely green Volkspark, across Prenzlauer Berg, and down the hill along tree-lined Kollwitzstraße, past the pubs and cafés. From there I found myself in Hackescher Markt, crammed full of tourists and fashionable restaurants -- and also, on this particular afternoon, throngs of former marathon runners, flushed with accomplishment and gamely limping down the street, sporting small medals on ribbons around the neck. While pushing my bicycle through the market square, I suddenly found myself inexplicably purchasing from an elderly street vendor two Soviet-era enamel pins for a euro each. One pin appears to read "Зенш", or ZENSH in Cyrillic, which, after a bit of Google grepping by Maciej, turns out to be the acronym for a Soviet correspondence school, while the other depicts a castle turret above the word "Rīga". Then I cycled along the Spree for a while, past the Hauptbahnhof (again!), and on into Alt-Moabit, before turning sharply south to catch the western edge of Tiergarten.

My favorite parts of Berlin were the green spaces, and the city is certainly blessed with them. Tiergarten itself is Berlin's crown jewel, her answer to Central Park (which turns out to be a totally absurd thing to say, given that Tiergarten apparently predates the latter by 300 years as a hunting preserve, and by at least 100 years as a public park, although the flora is much newer than that, having been turned to firewood by the end of the war and replanted only subsequently). The Straße de 17 Juni -- so named to commemorate the violent suppression of an x East German workers' uprising on that date in 1953 -- stretches away towards the Siegessäule, a two hundred foot (66m) high pillar, topped with a golden angel, bearing news of the Prussian military victories over the Danish and the Austrians and the French in the 1860s and '70s. One can climb the spiral staircase right up to the base of the statue, but I elected to press on, winding through the park's foot paths, and up John-Foster-Dulles-Allee (no joke) past where the medics and street vendors were still breaking down in the aftermath of the marathon, to the Reichstag itself, catching a glimpse of tiny figures walking up and down the spiral ramp in the dome atop the building. Dem Deutschen Volke, the legend emblazoned above the building's entrance reads, the German People.

I pedalled around the Reichstag, trying to encompass in my head all the fuss that had started in that building, tried to imagine it on fire from arson purportedly started by a purportedly deranged Dutch communist (or so he confessed under state torture), tried to imagine it half in ruins from Soviet bombardment. I couldn't grasp either one, so I continued along, down past Pariser Platz and the majestic Brandenburg Gate, the city's first foray into neoclassical architecture in the early 19th century, whose winged goddess had her olive wreath exchanged for an iron cross in the '30s, the same gate that later became an iconic symbol of the city's division. "While Brandenburg Gate remains closed," then-Mayor Richard Freiherr von Weisäcker once said, "the German question remains open." The Brandenburger Tor, as it happens, also appears on the obverse of the middle denominations of German euro coins, prefiguring the gates and bridges of the superstate's paper currency (as the gate originally appeared on the Deutschemark).

Between Pariser Platz and Potsdamer Platz, I found the city's Holocaust monument, which left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, the rows upon rows of identically mute granite blocks, arrayed like tombstones, echo the anonymity and sheer horrific numbers of the victims of the Nazi regime. The pathways into the memorial descend downwards until the smooth granite blocks loom labrinthine overhead. The effect draws one in; it is somber, reflective. What's more, it's right in the middle of everything, across the street from from the Tiergarten, right down the street from the Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag. No attempt has been made to hide this memorial, or to place it somewhere where it need not be seen or recalled. Yet, on the other hand, the monument conveys nothing of the actual facts of the Holocaust, of its brutal inhumanity and all-too-real terrors; it is disconnected in every way but conceptually from the suffering it memorializes -- although I suppose that to do otherwise might present very thorny problems for any such public monument. Nor did I see any plaque or other signage informing the visitor of the purpose of the memorial, although I didn't look too hard for such. At least, I suppose, it is there; that is a start.

Berlin seems quite unlike most other European capitals I've been to in that it has quite broad streets throughout its center, and none of the close set buildings and narrow alleyways that one finds in Amsterdam or Brussels or London. The best account for this I heard was that the city was from the cabbie who took me to Kreuzberg, that the Berlin was originally several different cities, which amalgamated over time, leaving it without a distinct center, but given that urban habitation there dates back to the 12th century, I wonder also to what degree Berlin's seeming newness is a function of the destruction wrought by the war and the postwar partition.

Nowhere is this idea of Berlin as a city permanently in transformation more evident than at Potsdamer Platz, the erstwhile crossroads of Berlin, which, in the Golden Twenties, was home to Europe's first ever set of traffic lights, by virtue of how much traffic then passed through its main intersection. At that time, Potsdamer Platz was the throbbing heart of Berlin's famously decadent night life. By 1945, however, Potsdamer Platz was naught but a smoking ruin, and, by 1965, although the rubble had been cleared, only the Berlin Wall had sprung up to replace what had stood there previously -- actually, two walls, one right on the border, and another a couple hundred feet inside East Berlin, with a "death zone" between them -- the space left wide open and empty, to afford a maximum field of view for the East German border guards, who were given orders to shoot to kill. Today's Potsdamer Platz, by contrast, is a cluster of gleaming high rise office buildings, a veritable slice of downtown Manhattan or London's Canary Wharf, a willful eradication of any remaining sign of the locale's on-again-off-again past, excepting solely a twenty foot long section of the Wall left standing near the entrance to the U-Bahn station, with a number of signs detailing the Wall's history. Even this minor concession is curiously inauthentic, as the eastern side of the Wall never had so much as a lick of graffiti on it, clear up to that famous day in 1989.

On the particular sunny afternoon that I cycled up to examine said section of fossilized wall with interest, an obviously informal brass band on the other side of the wall immediately commenced blatting out a rather faithful rendition of the musical theme from Flashdance. What a feeling, indeed.

Thus it seems, however, to be with Berlin's relation to its mixed past: What little is left of the Wall only stands still in a few places, in Potsdamer Platz, and across the Spree over in Friedrichshain, where the East Side Gallery has turned a long section into an international art display. Elsewhere, the wall has been forgotten completely, or is marked only by a double row of paving stones running down and sometimes cutting across the street or sidewalk. In some places, a very small and unobstrusive sign or pair of signs atop a street sign post advertises the path of the Berlin Mauerweg (you guessed it, the Berlin Wall Way) to the seeker of history. The following morning, I went back to Checkpoint Charlie, inspected the outdoor museum exhibit by daylight, and imagined myself standing on the very spot where a company of Soviet tanks squared off against a company of American tanks on a wet October evening in 1961, and almost started World War III. Later on I traced a bit of the path of the Wall between Kreuzberg and Mitte, and found a fascinating abandoned corner of Berlin along Sebastianstraße near Moritzplatz, with a long-disused auditorium building inside what must have been the death zone, the death zone itself now partially squatted by immigrants in modular housing, partially turned back into a sort of involuntary park, with locals walking their dogs in the evening twilight along elephant paths carved into the overgrowth. There is talk in the tourist exhibits of making a green belt that runs the entire historical circuit of the Wall, but it is plain to me that this is the aim of a small minority of Berliners interested in historical conservation. The green belt itself is already an impossibility in places like Potsdamer Platz, where giddy capitalist land development has already proceeded apace.

On one hand, I thoroughly empathize with what I perceive to be the desire of the majority of Berliners for apparently wanting to block out the unpleasant truths of the past, as probably would anyone who has been through a traumatic phase, and wants to get back to the business of normal and even happy life. At the same time, the war and its 45 year aftermath are now an inescapable part of the fabric of the city, and it seems to me that this time deserves to be honored and understood for what it was, if nothing else as a lesson and a sign to civilization about what can happen when compassion and reason are subjugated to dogma and doctrine. Germany's participation in the European experiment -- and the very shape of contemporary Berlin itself -- demonstrate that, if we but heed history, the past can be amended, and the antagonists of old can become the collaborators of tomorrow. But who wants to live in a history lesson?

And, in spite of Berliners' efforts to forget, or at least leave behind the past, the past has not left them behind. Although the city has reintegrated itself to the point where an untutored tourist like me can't tell the difference between East and West Berlin on sight (but for the odd double line of cobblestones), Jan tells me that the distinction between the two is visually apparent to any German. What's more, I'm told that Germans occasionally make reference to the Mauer im Kopf -- the Wall in the Head -- which still psychologically divides East Germans from West Germans, springing up in between a generation through the accident of the two hundred feet of death zone between growing up communist and growing up capitalist. I haven't yet fully figured out what this means, and, maybe, being a foreigner, I never will. And maybe one day soon it will cease to matter -- or as Europe grows and reconfigures in the same way that Berlin has had to, it will come to matter more.

Still, I see a lot of promise for the city's future, perhaps ironically for the fact that a large part of (East) Berlin was totally spared the breakneck redevelopment that has seized a lot of major Western cities over the last twenty five years, cities like New York and London and San Francisco and (so I'm told) Barcelona. In most places in Boston, as Jo once complained of, real estate prices have become fixed so high that there is no room for cultural experimentation left in the margins. This difference came to my attention on my last night in Berlin, when Jan and I first visited c-base (described as "the oldest crashed space-station on earth") too late in the evening to find anyone from Freifunk, and then ambled down to a riverside "beach bar," the likes of which seem to be quite the rage in Berlin, complete with a tiki bar and fire pits and wooden beach chairs and volleyball nets and, of course, sand, which someone must have carted in by the ton at some point. We sat down in the sand there and drank beers and talked about peer-to-peer networking protocols for exchanging geodata and mused on the lack of good Open Source video editors, and at some point I realized, holy crap, there is no longer anywhere in Manhattan or London or Boston that could support a place like this, there isn't room, and the rents would be too high. I said as much to Jan and he lamented the degree to which this is no longer true even in Berlin, and how artists and the like were already starting to move from places like to Friedrichshain to districts slightly farther out, like Wedding. And yet the kaleidescopic cultural possibilities still seem richer there than almost anywhere else I've been in Europe (which may not be saying all that much).

Ah, welthauptstadt Berlin! O axis of Europe, Berlin! Berlin of decadence and division! Berlin, whose reunification points hopefully to the eventual reunification of peoples now separated from one another everywhere and for all time! With grateful benedictions I departed, someday perhaps to gladly return.

· Idibon
· Humanitarian OSM Team

· Twitter
· Flickr
· Github
· LinkedIn


Before That
[2010] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2009] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2006] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2005] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2004] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2003] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2002] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec

© copyright 2002-2013 Schuyler Erle * [email protected]
All original material on this website is licensed under the Creative Commons.
= still powered by Blosxom (after all these years) =