"I'm Not Convinced We Know Anything"

An Ode To The Seas

An Ode To The Seas

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As early as my teenage years I always pictured my adult self living right next to a beach with my golden retriever and Cupid knows who else 😉

But imagining an experience and actually living it are oceans apart, so to speak. There’s nothing so beautifully grand and poetic as the waters.

The waves visiting the shore and making their way back, the currents crashing at the banks, and the waters stretching into the horizon and beyond.

Picturing it go around the earth and covering nearly all of it. Knowing that this is where it all started, where we all came from.

That this is the womb of life as we know it. And then it feels like the ocean itself is alive.

Breathing… singing… feeling…

Marvelling at creation, sustaining it,  being one with it.

I could easily sit on the sand and stare into her forever. For it was the most connected I’ve ever felt to anything.

The Missing Link in Kenya’s Open Data Story

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It’s slightly over two years since the government of Kenya launched the Kenya Open Data portal; a move that was hailed around the globe and seen by many as a path towards transparency in a corruption ridden government. Kenya became the second, after Morocco, in Africa to open up government data and one of the first few countries in the developing world to do so. Well, today the portal has less than 3000 datasets with the latest one uploaded on December 12th 2012 – 8 months ago. Most of the data is from 2007-2011. There’s hardly any interaction on the portal anymore in terms of dataset suggestions and creation of visualizations. Only 12 apps are listed under community apps and the mainstream media seems to have moved on, as it does when a story becomes stale. When the portal was launched, what was envisioned by most was better provision and access of services and accountability of government departments. Yet 2 years after the ribbon was cut and the champagne bottled popped we seem to be stuck at the beginning. What went wrong?

India has just launched Data Portal India , my original fears that it might go the same path as Kenya’s are waning given the many things they are doing differently. For example they have an app development competition. This will definitely increase it’s engagement with the community, and is a good way to get the word out there and will see a lot of community created innovations that make the data useful. The Indian portal already has 6 apps created by the government around the data. This is more than enough incentive for independent developers and civil society organisations to do the same. Kenya’s government on the other hand just released data and told developers to go forth and make apps. If the government makes apps it deems useful it will be able to consume the data better. And as my colleague Muchiri said to me earlier “when the government is consuming the data they will have an interest in making sure the data is clean and fresh”.

Any correct data has the potential be useful in the right context. However, the more recent the data, the  better. One of the most common complaints developers raised from the very beginning of the launch of the portal was how old the data was. Some is so old it’s obsolete. For example, most of the data uses Kenya’s older even though Kenya doesn’t have districts anymore. School codes for example have changed over the years – I remember how much this was frustrating as a Code4Kenya developer. The problem it seems is that the government didn’t have a stable framework in place for continuity beyond the launch. So the portal is becoming less useful by the day and developers have to look for the data themselves from government departments and other organisations. There’s nothing more frustrating in Kenya than getting a government employee to do something they are not clearly mandated to do. Ask anyCode4Kenya fellow. Open Data is a pretty new concept and beyond the suspicions the government workers will have when you ask for the data, there’s also the fact that they haven’t been properly trained on it. Sunlight Foundation recently released Open Data Policy Guidelines 2.0 and a recommendation that might work for this situation is having all government data open by default and an oversight authority to help with guidance and implementation.

Something else that the Sunlight Foundation points out that I find extremely important as a developer is having unique identifiers for entities. When we were building FindMySchool and StarHealth, one of the biggest challenges we had was that there was no consistent unique identities for the schools and hospitals respectively. Like I pointed out earlier school codes have been changing and names for schools and hospitals are usually recorded differently by different people in different government departments with infinite permutations. So even if one can come across different data sets from different sources that can potentially lengthen the narrative, there’s no programmatic way to accurately reconcile them.

So what is the missing link? Clearly the  whole program needs to refreshed, with less hype and more work, and this time with policy guidelines in place that are strictly followed. Launching the portal should have been more than just Kenya wanting to be the new cool kid on the block, rather a push towards a transparent government that people can trust and for the government to give people better access to public services and amenities. So it has to be properly thought out and needs to be sustainable and active.

Reality is enough, when you get to know it

The other week I was wondering why reality seems cooler in movies, novels and imagination? The Matrix movies for example portray a world where human life is confined to a make believe world simulated in computers. Except for Agent Smith and crew(the bad guys) trying to take over it seems like an interesting world. Other movies like Tron and Inception also present worlds that seem more appealing than our own. And it’s not just the movies, alcohol for example twists ones perception of the world and all of a sudden things become more beautiful. Weed makes the world even prettier :) And when the effects of the alteration start to wane you gradually realize the normal boring reality. The reality that is not amazing enough.

Pondering on this issue lately has made me realize that reality is the most awesome thing when you pay attention. Think about it for a minute. We live on a giant rock suspended in “mostly empty” space, held in position by a ball of gas a million times more massive, which it travels around ten times the speed of sound. The massive ball of gas, our sun, is dwarfed by other bodies in a pool of trillions of such, in a universe 40 billion light years wide that is not only expanding but expanding faster with time. And in it are all sorts of stuff; exploding stars, planets like our own, invisible matter that probably make up 3 quarters of the universe, massive bodies with infinite gravity that pull everything in, including light. And all this, could be nothing but a hologram on the surface of a black hole(upcoming blog post), or a black hole.

But forget the way out there for a second. Come back to Earth. Earth is by itself one of the most amazing things that exist. We are yet to find something similar, something with the exact ingredients required for life to come about. Its features are so specific it’s eerie. It’s the distant from the sun, the composition of the atmosphere, the speed of rotation, the mass and a million other things. All so finely tuned so that life could occur, or (for the more practical) so finely tuned that life could occur.

Life. What an amazing phenomena. It’s hard to imagine that all this just happened, spontaneously, out of nothing but the right conditions and good timing. Life includes a myriad of all sorts. The chameleon for example can change its colors to hide in its surrounding. But if you think the chameleon is cool then the mimic octopus will blow your mind. This creature can morph into over 15 sea creatures ranging from crabs to jellyfish. Awesome eh?(even Mitt Romney can’t beat that)

Some forms of life spend most of their time in the air looking down on Earth, some spend it below the surface and others even in water. Life ranges from the super huge dinosaurs that were (fortunately for us) driven to extinction 65 million years ago to the teeny tiny ones that can’t be observed by the naked eye. And yet the super small life is not the smallest stuff we know. They are made of molecules, which in turn are made of atoms and ions. But the rabbit hole goes further down. Welcome to the subatomic world where everything changes including the laws of nature(or our perception of them).

 

Since before Aristotle men have wondered what the smallest bit that makes all stuff is. The early Greek and Indian thinkers proposed the atom as the smallest particle. In fact the word atom is derived from the Greek word atomos which means indivisible. But over time we have come to know that this is far from the truth. Even now we cannot say that we know for sure what the fundamental building block of the universe is. However, our quest has introduced us to some of the weirdest things we’ve come across in the universe and even gotten us closer to knowing the origin of everything. Our subatomic journey has revealed that atoms are actually planetary system like stuff with electrons orbiting heavier central nuclei made of neutrons and protons. And the electrons are no longer your traditional particles that can be fully defined as having certain velocity or even being in a certain location. It is not even a solid block of matter anymore but a fluff of energy whose location and velocity are not specific values but probabilities. In this world we have particles whose certain properties are all possible values until measured. We have pairs of particles that remain connected even when separated by arbitrarily large distances. Electron behaviors show that they can be at different places at the same time and even nowhere at certain times probably slipping in and out of this and other parallel universes.

Parallel universes, it’s mostly theory now but the math looks good. The possibility that out there, there’s more. That everything we see as all there is is just one of infinite completely independent of each other. That all possible decisions you could have made in all the situations you have encountered since you started to exist were made in multiple other universes. That in other universes you don’t exist, in others you coexist with dinosaurs, in others you are a multiple Nobel prize winning physicist who invented a time travel machine. It sounds like science fiction but if our current theory of the universe is correct then this is the reality.

Dreaming cylons and vampires

I was a Cylon vampire among Bill and Eric of True Blood, Boomer, Kara and Ellen of BattleStar Galactia among others. We had a meeting at some point wondering how to dress. I suggested that each model should wear the same kind of clothes so that people don’t easily discover the truth.
Jump!
We are drinking. Kara is kissing Eric to make me jealous. But it is a quick and forced kiss. I decide to kiss Boomer. We do it passionately like something was actually between us. Kara gets jealous and decides to kiss me passionately as well. At this point I realize am dreaming because I remember am not dating Kara but Melissa.
Jump!
We are in a car, drunk and chatty. As the car comes to a junction there’s a motorcycle ahead of us entering a compound. It’s a futuristic looking motorcycle but it looks broken somehow. One of us in the car says that it’s too cold outside to drive without a roof. After the junction we’re driving down the road. One of us points our attention to the hyena running in the opposite direction.
I wake up.
Am at a door, Bill is handing me an empty water container. We are going to fetch water. Then I start telling him that am having a dĂ©jĂ  vu. “I have seen this Bill. I’ve seen all of this” He looks at me like he knows something, something bad. “I’ve seen us walk down this path. I remember all this from the dream. we’re going to meet our vampire friend Eric somewhere along the road”, I say. “of course our vampire friend!” he replies mockingly.
After we walk for a while I realize there’s no vampire friend. Then it dawns on me that it’s daytime. “Oh, we can’t be vampires because it’s during the day.” I say. Bill replies “yes kid”. I start getting scared. “what is wrong with me Bill?”. I ask . “you’ve been like this for the last four months”, he says. “Like what?”, I ask. And he replies ” since the accident! False memories.”
Am dumbfounded. At which point we enter a car at the junction from my dream. I look across and there’s a gated compound. Below the gate I can see wheels of a vehicle that look exactly like the motorbike I remember. I look at Bill and his face his pale. Very pale. I look outside and I see Eric.

I wake up.

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Of death and beyond

In under a week two of my greatest heroes succumbed to cancer, a dreadful disease whose toll ironically increases with our advancement in science and technology. Steve Jobs and Wangari Maathai are more than your ordinary people. They both lived their lives to the fullest extent and their efforts had effects on people all over the globe. They are icons that will be remembered for years to come and they set paths of development that will influence generations to come. They were visionaries who struggled day and night to pursue their dreams to change the way we do things. And now we have to live with the reality that they are gone, forever. Just like that. Which got me really thinking about death.

Just over a week ago, my friend Melissa and I talked in length about life and death and life after death. She has a strong belief on reincarnation and despite my philosophical diversion from all that is beyond natural she managed to convince a part of me that there is probably more to death than just decomposition.

I think of myself as an atheist. But definition can become tricky. People have varying definitions of the term and their perceived philosophical implications. In my case, it is the accepting of things that can be shown to be true and rejecting those that aren’t or those that can’t be proved otherwise. Theories must have concrete evidence and should remain valid until conflicting evidence is found. That’s my philosophy. But then again religious people (and the designers at Facebook) expect it be defined as your religion. Problem is, it’s not. I have no religious inclination.

Now as an atheist, whatever that means, am only accommodating to science. Science provides neither information on what happens after death nor a means of measuring it. We as humans have assumed there is more to death than decomposition probably since the time evolution enabled us to make assumptions. The fact that there is no science to back it up however does not mean it is incorrect. But then again why should we hang on to the idea? Is it the notion that we are too complex and too important to be just bundled up matter with a finite lifespan? What if that’s all we are, and the notion is just part of how our brains work, perhaps the only way our brains can work for this kind of advancement to happen? Otherwise what would be the point of living and making the world a better place when life goes for less than 120 years out of the 13,000,000,000 years of the universe, on a teeny tiny rock whose very existence can be completely ignored at no loss by another civilization within the 15 billion light years expanse of the universe? It is possible that the only way a mortal intelligent species can advance and not self-destruct is if it believes it is special, and somewhat immortal.

And that is working very well so far. We don’t know what we are, why we are here, where we are headed and the point of it all but we can celebrate our fallen heroes because they make life worth the hype and they give us the courage to play our part in advancing our kind. And maybe when we finally figure it out we will see the point and be grateful that we came thus far without much to go with.

Dear Future Me

It’s a shame that even though you are wiser, brighter and more experienced with life, the path your life has taken and your current situation depends on the choices I make for you now.

I wish it was the other way round so that I didn’t put you in that awkward situation. That situation where you wish I was less materialistic, more focussed, more appreciative of the things in life that actually matter. I wish I could have your point of view so I could do only that which I needed to do and spend not one second or more on things that I need not in my life.

I know you think I’m too young to get stressed over little things, you probably even find it funny when I go to a bar to drink my stress away. You probably remember that and say to yourself  “Oh, that’s just cute. He thinks he has problems.”

I know you wonder why I didn’t spend more time reading Shakespeare so you could make more rich people jokes at your philanthropy dinners. You wish I could have worked harder now when I have more energy and a younger brain so you could just lie back and wait for the Nobel prizes.  You wish I could invent more, travel around the world, write more poetry, go for picnics, or just spend more being in the moment; noticing stars, trees, shadows, edges, smells, moments…

You wonder why I was instead  caught up in this race towards material gain, and acted in certain ways to fit in the crowd. You probably think I shouldn’t have tried so hard to fit in so as to stand out because that doesn’t make sense anyway.

You wonder why I ate junk food, and lots of sugar and red meat and very little fruit. You think I don’t care about you at all.

I wish had your wisdom so I could see the world through your eyes. And I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused you. But when you think about it, I have to be me, for you to be you. Though I promise I will try harder to make you have less regrets.

#KenyaDecides, So Let’s Play Pretend

Let’s play pretend, that the Jubilee and CORD coalitions were created by parties coming together because of their similar policies and not to aggregate tribes for voting blocs.

Let’s play pretend, that Jubilee’s victory was because of their impressive manifesto and policies, that their voters read the manifestos and compared them with their opponents’.

Let’s play pretend, that despite Jubilee getting over 95% of the Kikuyu vote and CORD getting over 95% of the Luo vote that we think of each other as Kenyans and not as Kikuyu or Luo or Kalenjin etc.

Let’s play pretend, that there will be a smooth working relationship between other western leaders and a Kenya whose two principal leaders are charged with crimes against humanity. Better yet, let’s play pretend that we do not need a working relationship with them.

Let’s play pretend, that the two presidential debates that cost millions of shillings had a significant effect on voters and that Kenya is now one of those countries where performance in the presidential debates matter.

Let’s play pretend, that the new president and new vice president are going to stay together for the next five years of their term, and will deliver at least half of their campaign promises.

Let’s play pretend, that the new vice president , despite having opposed the new constitution so bitterly, will see that it is implemented to the latter as he promised during the campaigns.

Let’s play pretend, and keep Kenya going for another five years.

My Problem with Democracy

Now before you go judgmental on me thinking I’m pro the North Korea kind of governance where internet is illegal, take a minute to actually hear me out. Don’t get me wrong,  I’m one of the most liberal people you will come across, always in favor of individuals being free to decide what they want to do. Having being raised in my formative years by a totalitarian father I grew up to be very rebellious and a liberty freak. But liberty and democracy though related in some ways are oceans apart.

When the progress of the nation is entrusted on the masses, it becomes a problem considering the masses are usually generally uninformed on matters that relate to economy, science and technology, international relations and others. In under-developed economies, the bulk of the voters is made of uneducated people whose main interest is voting in their tribe. Another big part of the voting crowd is the youth, some are educated and some are not. While the youth might be comfortable relating with others outside their tribal boundaries most of their choices are misguided based largely on peer pressure, and very unintelligent opinions like “I’m voting for him because he’s rich” – a university student friend of mine actually told me this.

A democratic society will obviously have the will of the majority favored against that of the minority. And while it will represent the general will of the people, it could be based on irrational arguments. That’s why in Kansas, the Board of Education in 2005 ruled that evolution should not be taught as a scientific fact but just a theory and that Intelligent Design considered an alternative. While this won’t make any sense to someone well educated in science, it was the will of the people.

Democracy can very easily evolve into a tyranny where the minority is oppressed by the majority. According to John T. Wenders, “Democracy is two coyotes and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”.  In American States like Texas and Minnesota an atheist cannot hold public office. Even though the laws against religious discrimination for public office were overruled in 1961 by the Supreme Court in Torcaso vs Watkins, some states haven’t removed the law from their state constitutions. Also in most states gay marriage is still illegal. This is a clear example of the majority oppressing the minority because they have the numbers.

The late Steve Jobs once said that “People do not know what they want until you show it to them.” While I don’t like a lot of things about Apple, I agree with Jobs on this to some extent. Like I mentioned earlier people have a tendency to base their arguments on irrational judgement.  No matter how far from the facts they might be, they will still most likely go with what they “feel”. Coming back to the developing societies, where in most cases over 90% of the population is religious, the masses agree with churches on favoring abstinence over promoting protected sex. These societies of course exhibit a higher rate of transmission of STDs than the less-religious, more practical societies. And the US being the most religious country in the developed world, sex education is mostly guided by religion than by facts. That is why it has the highest teen pregnancy rate of the developed world.

Now on to why I did this blog post in the first place. My motherland Kenya is going into its most important presidential election. Among the candidates is Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the first president of Kenya. If Uhuru wins this election he will be the third president from the Kikuyu tribe out of the four presidents Kenya has had since independece. Kenya has 42 tribes with Kikuyu being the largest but that is not my point. As you probably already know Uhuru and his running mate William Ruto are being indicted for crimes against HUMANITY at the f******* ICC! Okay I’m a getting a bit emotional here…relax…relax… Ruto comes from the third largest tribe in Kenya, so if this election was to go tribal they would have a very high chance of winning. Thing is all Kenyan presidential elections have been tribal ever since. Once again the masses decide on what is good for them. And as I mentioned the bulk of the voters will be voting without a clue of how things actually work.

 

Now here is the reality. Kenya enjoys a very good relation with the western countries. A lot of government programmes rely on aid. Some western countries have expressed warnings at electing the ICC suspects but Uhuru keeps telling voters that Kenya can do without foreign aid. This is a blatant lie, and as the former minister of Finance he knows that best. Kenya currently owes over US $ 16 billion. Tourism is Kenya’s second largest source of revenue, and over 60% of the tourists are from western countries. It is very likely that Kenya will withdraw from the Rome Statute if Uhuru wins the election and this will screw up our ties with west. What will happen is the world will witness another Zimbabwe. Of course the average Kenyan living in the rural area will not think in these terms. And so the fate of Kenya lies in their hands.

Alan De Benoist in his book “The Problem of Democracy” argues that democracy reduces an individual to a cog in a machine which they can’t control. And the direction is set by politicians with little genuine accountability.  Plato the philosopher in The Republic of Plato criticized democracy and ranked it only better than tyranny but worse than aristocracy, timocracy and oligarchy. He argued that the masses shouldn’t vote since they were not educated in philosophy and arts. I’m not arguing here that the uneducated and the youth should not vote, rather I think Plato’s ideal aristocratic government led by wise men would be best in Kenya’s current situation, and that democracy in the coming election, is probably it’s worst enemy.

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In 2013, Think Beyond Yourself

“Come! Baby Come!”, said the egomaniac as he faded into the annals of obscure history. Miguna Miguna was a big mouth with a literal big mouth, and he was a classic example of someone full of himself. But where that has gotten him is a good lesson for others to see beyond their self importance.  He got a whole nation talking about him and used the fifteen minutes to ruin his chances at an actual shot at real fame. One would say if he had any more pride he would have had precisely 15 minutes of fame.

Humility unlike pride doesn’t come at a price. But humans are a weird lot  always going for the option that is more resource intensive, the option that has been shown over and over again to bear bad fruit. And yet it’s the option of choice for most of us. It’s the option that drives us to add another sports car to the collection when there are tonnes of people whose lives would be changed or even saved if the money was spent on them instead. It is the option that drives North Korea to invest a shitload of money in nuclear weapons when its people are suffering. It is the option that makes the developed world spend a lot of their excess wealth in excess military strength when other countries can barely feed their people.

In our pride driven race to get to the top, we often forget that we live in a society and the one thing that should identify as apart from non humans is our humanity. And yet we keep driving, going faster and faster, viewing humility as and humanity as a reserve for the naive.

Humans always want more, and do anything to get there while in the process stepping on the guys without even though they could share what they have with them and both rise up. And it’s not like this is an encoded part of our DNA, it’s actually a flaw we choose to inherit and to nurture.

It doesn’t help to always put oneself first. Before making everything about you think about the other person. How are they affected? Before doing something to someone we should ask ourselves if it something we wouldn’t mind being done unto us. I don’t draw my morality code from the Bible but I appreciate the fact that there’s some wisdom in it. There’s one verse in particular  that I think Christians should spend more time practicing than reciting. It says “Love your neighbor as you love yourself”. And it’s not just Christians who should observe it but everyone else keen on seeing better things happen around them.

Be selfless today and do a good thing to a random person. See if it gives you satisfaction. If it does, it means you have it in you. Humanity. And if you like that it gives you satisfaction, why not do it again. And again. Why not live your life like that. Why not make the world a better place, by thinking beyond yourself.

Of Product Development

Over the past two weeks I’ve been lost in code working all day sometimes up to 6AM in the morning. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the zone – that state where you have a concept in your mind and you can’t help yourself focus all your mental energy into seeing it through. And nothing can distract you, even when you are not it you think about it.

One important thing I learned a few months ago in my time as a Code4Kenya developer is that it’s not enough to create a product with cool features. Programmers are usually trying to push their products further and further extending the features, updating it to current technologies and basically trying to make it awesome. Something we often forget however is to focus on usability. Instead of making it more readily usable to the end user we push for the ‘wow’ factor. Unfortunately that only impresses our programmer buddies but the targeted user will only be impressed if it makes their lives easier. But if they have to get a user manual to make use of the product they develop cold feet probably look for alternative even with less ‘wow’ as long they do what they want in a way that makes practical sense to them.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I was doing a write up of the product for a business plan and I realized that some of the wow features that kept me up all night are actually very petty and I can’t even write them as part of the product description no matter how cool it sounds in my programmer head.

In the end you want to be able to describe what your product does in a very simple sentence. Also you want to make sure it does it do what it claims to do. And it does it well. Is it bugged, or smooth? Is it tested in different environments? Therefore you must spend less time coding and more time planning, testing and debugging. Start small with a basic version of the product that is stable and has a clean and easily understandable UI(user interface).

It’s very easy to push debugging and UI clean up to the end after chasing the ‘wow’ features. But if the product gets out there with bugs that could have been avoided it might end very underwhelming considering the amount of work that had been put in even if the bugs are fixed later. Thing is when you introduce a new solution to the market, people are skeptic. They subconsciously wonder if it actually makes sense, especially if the solution is introducing a new way of doing things. Trust me even the tech savvy people are very conservative deep down. That’s how Google Buzz failed and people recoiled back to their Facebook dens.

In a nutshell, keep it simple, make it stable, ensure it actually works!