Saturday, December 10, 2011

Culture of Maintenance

400 dollar used lawnmower

According to Gongong, in Canada it costs 50 dollars to get a mechanic to agree to look at your broken lawn mower, then at least additional 100 to actually fix it. By comparison, a brand new lawnmower can be had for about 200 dollars. These economics invariably mean that nobody fixes lawnmowers in Canada. In a downward feedback spiral, the lack of demand further drives up repair service prices since the one remaining repairman has a monopoly and knows it. Not to mention you probably have to drive fifty miles out of town to find the guy.

Not in Kenya. Here it pays to repair lawnmowers. Our second hand mower cost us 400 dollars - and replacing it with a new one would be 500. But fixing it was less than 10 (700 Kenyan Shillings). Here is the story quoted from my father in law's diary:
The lawn mower was broken again. This time we took it to a repair shop with the gardener. We drove north through the new housing area called New Runda. Not long after we turn south on Kambu Road, there was a rest centre consisted of eating place in huts and a large gas station. There was also a large restaurant surround by a high wall. On the lawn in front of the gas station was the open repair shop with no hut or any structure. There were an old broken Indian made three wheeler tutut and five old lawn mowers on the lawn, and some tools scattered on the ground. The technician adjusted a valve to get the proper mixture of gas and air, and took off the blade for sharpening. It took him for about half an hour, and the mower was running properly again. He asked for KES 700 and Min paid him after consulting with the gardener. Min had told me that the fee for hiring a taxi driver was KES 700 for a day. This was probably the bench mark the technician used to decide his service fee.
Patrick, Min and Gongong at the Lawnmower Repair Store (check out the tools scattered all over the ground)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Elusive Five

Chasing down giraffes on foot in Amboseli

Back when safaris comprised tracking down animals on foot and shooting them, enthusiasts defined the 'big five': Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard. Tourists continue to obsess about sighting these 'big five'. But, as Min rightly pointed out one day on a bushwalk during which we were endeavoring to chase down some giraffes on foot, if the point of labeling these five was how big they are, then surely giraffe, not to mention hippopotamus, should have made the list. The trick, by the way, to catching up to giraffes is not to behave like an intelligent predator. If you try to cut them off - walking towards where they are headed - they'll freak out and run even faster and further. If you 'give them way' and just tail along behind them stupidly, like a cattle egret might, they lose interest in running and settle down to browsing on Acacia trees instead. This tendency to flee is why giraffe is not one of the big five. The five were chosen because they "won't give you way" (quote from our guide, Leperes, in Amboseli), but will stand their ground and attack if challenged, making them particularly dangerous to hunt on foot. But times have changed. Safaris today are done in vehicles with radios, telephoto lenses and guides trained in the ways of the modern bush. Yes, everyone knows circling vultures can lead you to a lion kill, but even more useful bush signs can be read today. Excited sounding radio messages in Maa, and speeding convoys of safari vans, for example, are a sure sign of the supposedly elusive rhino, cheetah or leopard. Perhaps the true safari enthusiast should define a new 'elusive five' as those that are most difficult to photograph while on a commercial safari. Aardvark would certainly be among these new 'elusive five'. They never come anywhere near roads, only leave their subterranen dens at night (precisely when all the big carnivores are out looking for something to eat), and bolt back underground as soon as they sense anyone coming. The other four are so elusive I can't even say what they are, and I certainly don't have any photographs of them

Potential candidate for the elusive five: Osterich with head corkscrewed 540 degrees?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Eat Dirt, Sucker

I vaguely recall 'eat dirt, sucker' being a put down of some kind in high school. Something that would be said by the victor to rub in one's loss at some competitive activity.

I've posted quite a bit now on delicious foods in Kenya, so at the risk of glob appearing to become a one dimensional food blog it turns out that one of these is, well, dirt. Here's the photographic proof, a bag of baked clay that Min picked up at the local supermarket (Nakumatt) for 30 shillings. We all sucked on these clay chips for dessert last night.

Min, source of all wisdom, and having read up on wikipedia regarding 'geophagy' ( informed us that we were playing a dangerous game sampling this fare, since many people, particularly in central Africa and the American South, are addicted to it.

A couple of obvious questions arose over dessert:

Max: If you want to eat dirt why buy it at Nakumatt? Why not just eat the delicious looking stuff in our backyard?

Keith: If this is addictive why is the price so low? You'd think rapacious traders would corner the market and make people pay through the nose for high quality stuff. Was the clay aisle at Nakumatt full of rampaging competitive shoppers like the sugar aisle? At least you got fresh dirt, look at the label, it was packed only a week ago, and is good for another 12 months!

Alex: This isn't very tasty. Do you think grade '1' might be the cheap stuff and grade 2 might be for the real connoisseurs?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

GOOS and Climate Change Adapatation Interview 2011

To view this pdf online in blogger I find it best to click the 'magnify'
button at the bottom a few times and then scroll columnwise through the pdf.

KA GOOS CCA Interview 2011 Hires

Sunday, August 14, 2011

No fake fruit here

Real Bananas!
Unreal is an interesting word. In common conversation it means extremely good, as in "wow, that banana and avocado salad was unreal'. I guess this is probably ironic language usage - saying the exact opposite of what one actually means. The word 'unreal' only connotes good because not being real is actually bad. Ordinarily of course, there is far greater value in real things, gucci handbags for instance, than in fakes. In North America and Europe much time and effort has gone into food labeling laws, balancing consumer protection and corporate profit. A quick glance at the ingredients list quickly informs one that cereal that is 'sweetened with a touch of real honey' may in fact be mostly sugar (as long as honey appears somewhere on the ingredients list, perhaps just after emulsifiers). And what exactly is pure Florida orange juice? It clearly sells juice to label it this way, but does it mean the juice is free of additives or is this a guarantee against the possible tainting from oranges that were not grown in Florida? It seems that in Kenya, the 'real' label is very important indeed. I suppose labeling made in Kenya "Manji" brand 'the real digestive biscuits' is to distinguish them from 'the original digestives' imported from the UK in suspiciously similar packaging. But what exactly is the point of labeling an avocado 'real', or every banana in a bunch?

Gordon Brown likes his digestives with chocolate

Friday, July 29, 2011

Leo Ni Siku Yangu

Living in France the past seven years I was at first annoyed, and then slowly became habituated to, the fact that numerous internet sites were in French. The reasons for this were multifaceted. After all I was living in France, so many times these were just sites put up by local stores or offices that were naturally in the local language. Others were big multinational sites though - like airfrance for example - that would ask me to input what country I resided in, and when I ticked France, would then make the assumption that I preferred my websites in French. These sites generally would provide no obvious option for residing in a country but preferring a foreign tongue. This is not a marginal niche market but rather at least 20% of the residents of France, so it was never clear to me if this was simply a bad or lazy assumption, or perhaps some insidious pro-French language law put in place in attempt to save la belle langue from demise due to the encroachment of the ever maligned anglo-saxon culture and tongue. Presumably the same law that forces French TV stations, unlike those in most other European countries, to screen American movies only in the dubbed version, without the possibility of switching to a second audio track in version original. One of the trickiest sites was google, which would figure out my Frenchness, based on my IP address I suppose, and send me automatically to with French menus, search returns prioritizing French sites, and even customized advertisements in my googlemail in French for French holidays and French blind dates. Well, I noticed today that Google has caught on to my recent move, and I now have the wonderful opportunity to be at first annoyed, and hopefully slowly habituated to, all my menus and search results in Swahili. If you are wondering what Leo Ni Siku Yangu means, just check out the picha below. That's all for now, my early morning coffee is growing cold and its time to Ondoka and go to work.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Handmade in Kenya

Tourists and expats love to pick up handmade mementos in Africa. My parent's house was full of Tswana baskets and cloth prints. African masks and woodcarvings adorn many a high end Parisian apartment wall. The Capetown airport is chockerblock with stores selling ‘Out of Africa’ furniture, handicrafts, salves and art. All this would suggest that the handmade African craft industry is a big moneymaker and a great boon to the local economy.  At the same time, all this conspicuous consumption can make it easy to forget another interesting side of the made in Africa cachet. Even in cosmopolitan Nairobi, where pretty much everything can be found in the local Nakumatt (Kenya’s version of Monoprix) people will still make things by hand rather than buy them, not to sell to tourists, but simply because it’s cheaper to do so. 

On moving into our voluminous empty new house Min asked me to check all the light fixtures, about half of which were not working, to determine whether the problem was just burned out bulbs, or something more involved. As luck would have it one of the very few useful items left in the garage was a handmade ladder! Probably it required less than 5 dollars cash investment to make this product, though at least a full day of someone’s time and effort. 

Handmade Kenyan Ladder
Mass Produced Italian Ladder

Because it was enormously heavy and would be a pain lugging around to all the light fixtures in our apartment Min bought an Italian import, a lightweight aluminum Rossetti  (the Lamborghini of ladders). This required an upfront cash investment of 80 dollars, but no time at all (since she was at the store anyway). Clearly if you are cash poor, handmade is simply the best way to obtain a ladder. I’d also argue, comparing these two photos, that one can even see why handmade can also be so much more aesthetically appealing, and thus the seeds of the handicrafts industry that exists today.

Handmade Kenyan Scaffolding
Yesterday Min and I took an early evening stroll in our neighborhood, the leafy green suburb of Runda. It reminded me of Bethesda Maryland in a way, one enormous house after another along a quiet, nearly traffic free crescent, with no sidewalks. Standing out towards the edge of town, against the backdrop of mature estates, we came across the construction site in this photo. Of course I don’t really know what this is, but I like to think it might be the future dream house of a local Kenyan who made his way up the handmade ladder far enough to be able to afford a plot of land in this nice safe suburb, but not quite far enough to hire an expensive contractor.  

I wonder if the artistic wooden scaffolding is the creation of “SELF” or of “INBRED ARCHITECTS”?

Friday, June 17, 2011

2010 GOOS Interview

I figured out how to post pdf files on blogger! This is an interview from in 2010. They interviewed me last week for their July 2011 issue, so I'll post the update when available to compare ...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Toshiko Takaezu

I remember three professors from Princeton fondly. The ones that taught me more than what was on their syllabi. Eric L from Engineering Thermodynamics, Bob B from East Asian Studies/Art History, and Toshiko T from pottery. Toshiko passed away this year and my email box has been crammed with various memories from her students at PU in the 80's and 90's. Pretty much everyone seems to remember her as tough and critical in class, but open and warm at her house where she brought us to raku firing picnics.

Funny, I don't remember her as tough at all. One of the first pieces she asked us to make was a sculpture from identical forms at least 28 inches high. Mine was enormous, it measured far more than 28 inches in every direction. It also exploded in the kiln, so instead of the rather mundane monstrosity I had actually envisioned, it came out as an intriguingly disjoint tryptic. Toshiko loved it, decided as a result (incorrectly) that I was a favorite student and never spoke a critical word to me for the rest of the semester. Because I enjoyed her class, and playing with clay, I signed up again every semester until I graduated. It was an unrelated bonus that this served to pad my mediocre Mechanical Engineering/East Asian Studies GPA with A's.

The next semester my mother asked me for some pottery, so I thought I'd try to throw a big bowl with a fitting lid - a daunting technical challenge for me. The lid cracked while it was drying out, but having put so much effort into producing this functional item for my mother, I carefully disguised the crack as a spoon hole. Toshiko, to my astonishment, and for the first and only time with any of my lousy work, put this piece in the pile of rejects on the floor. Having never experienced this, I went to her with it. A 'duck' she said, which was her word for 'functional handicraft that cannot therefore be art'. I explained my mother wanted it so I had to make it. She was not moved in the least. Trying another tack, I explained the hole in the lid was completely serendipitous, I had only put it there in order to remove a drying crack that appeared because I was so bad at throwing on the wheel. It was not a preconceived slot to be used for a spoon, but evidence that the clay was in control, not me. Oh, she said, in that case you better glaze it.

Here's another early wheel piece. Toshiko took a quick look at it and said 'too thick.' So I took one of the little wire tools and scratched it down until it was paper thin like hers. If you look carefully, you can even see the shape of the trimming tool in the grooves. I fired it at one of her raku picnics.

What's the point of all this reminiscing? Toshiko taught me about the importance of unintended consequences beyond our control. I use this lesson all the time in my job working for the United Nations trying to address global environmental problems. Toshiko taught me, through clay, the hubris of thinking we can engineer the Earth into a sustainable resource delivery system for societal benefit.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Gorrick and GOOS

Glenn Gorrick’s artistic depiction of the Global Ocean Observing System, and the ocean that it serves to monitor, plays freely with spatial scales. The work sweeps effortlessly from the vast realm of the global oceans, through the human scales of oceanographic equipment and marine animals, to molecules. Fitting this range of scales on a single tableau required quite an artistic flight of fancy – but at its core, the work is not fantasy. In fact, the global ocean observing system is operating today, in the real world, across this same enormous range of scales.

While the artwork manages to beautifully capture many of the diverse elements of the observing system and the ocean, what unfortunately cannot be depicted – even with plenty of artistic license - is the daily delivery of societal benefits that routine ocean observations underpin. First and foremost the system facilitates sustainable use of the many resources found at sea. 70% by volume of world trade moves across the surface of the ocean.  A hundred billion dollar a year fisheries industry supplies protein to millions of coastal communities and is an essential export of many economies.  Energy extraction from off-shore oil fields, as well as the advent of extensive off-shore wind turbines keeps the world's machinery moving.  These industries depend on a robust observing system in order to operate efficiently and sustainably.

Additionally, a wide range of valuable predictions depends on ocean observations. These include for example forecasts of hurricane intensity, landfall and related storm surge heights, tsunami propagation and run-up, and seasonal climate variations such as the timing and strength of monsoon rains and El Nino related seasonal droughts and floods. Finally, the oceans are both driving and responding to global anthropogenic change. Sea level rise, ocean acidification, ecosystem changes and the impacts of pollution are all monitored by the system, and it is only by keeping this watchful eye on the changing ocean, that humanity can mitigate, and adapt to, these dramatic changes.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tswaing Crater

Tswaing Meteor Crater, Near Pretoria 2011

Tswaing Crater Climate Record
Tswaing means place of salt in seTswana - a language I spoke fluently as a child but have now unfortunately mostly forgotten. It is also the name for a remarkable feature in the landscape outside Pretoria, South Africa, that was formed 250 million years ago when a meteorite slammed into the Earth at a velocity of nearly 20km/second. Walking around the crater last week during the "record setting" 2011 La Nina flooding in the region, with the lake level the highest a local geologist had ever seen, I was reminded of how long term paleo-variations in regional hydrological balance are usually far greater than anything in the modern record. Tim Patridge cored the Tswaing crater some years ago. Granite at the bottom of the core proved the crater was not a volcanic feature, while the sediment layers recorded the attached incredible record of monsoon variations, with extended periods both far wetter and far dryer than today. Interestingly the ~100 thousand year 'glacial-interglacial' signal associated with changes in eccentricity in the Earth's orbit that is so familiar in most long climate records is completely absent. Instead there seems to be a strong ~40k oscillation perhaps linked with changes in obliquity (tilt of the earth's axis). Though infinitesimal on these vast paleotimescales, I managed to click my own record of temporal change. Below a snapshot of me (taken with a twin lens reflex rolleiflex camera!) standing on the wall outside the Union Building in Pretoria in 1966, and the same wall recaptured (with my iphone) in digital color in 2011.

Wall outside Union Building, Pretoria 2011

Me and NaiNai at the same wall in 1966