The fact that some one person, somewhere, or some bunch of kids being surveyed would convince people that a movie with owls as heroes (forchrissakes) would fly seriously gives me hope. Ferrealz.
The fact that some one person, somewhere, or some bunch of kids being surveyed would convince people that a movie with owls as heroes (forchrissakes) would fly seriously gives me hope. Ferrealz.
“power is the ability not only to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person” – Chimamanda Adichie
This might be a top 5 TED talk, for its power, clarity of concept, and speaker presence. Nigerian novelist (and Booker shortlister) Chimamanda Adichie solves the riddle of the truth and incompleteness of stereotypes and biases, by exposing the “dangers of the single story.”
Listen to the talk, but here’s an example: Africa does have failed states, serious infrastructure problems, and the severest forms of economic hardship. That is a true story. But, for most people, it is either the only story they know, or they only know “different versions of [that] single story.” Since that story doesn’t include a thriving and growing African middle class (across many countries, of course), an African intelligentsia, and economic success stories, we remain stuck in our stereotypes. In addition to solving the riddle of stereotypes that are true (now they are stories that tell one truth and the charge is to learn the other stories), it also helps me personally get out of the prejudiced/non-prejudiced quandary. Too often conversations involving narrow cultural understandings (single story versions of a people or their lives) are polar: you have to confront the misconceiving as prejudice. While it is a prejudice, the cure is not solely about fixing a character flaw, it’s about expanding the story.
Adichie says single stories of Nigeria “flatten her experience” (around 13:11 in the video). Reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was a huge revelation of how flat my understanding of Africa is. I have only known Africa from a policy perspective: the summary numbers and prose about famine, civil war, wasted aid, problems in education and information technologies. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells a range of stories in William KamKwamba’s life: two famines, going to school, playing as a boy, playing/hanging differently as a teenager, his experience of popular culture, the mixing of magic and science in his life, his curiosity and tinkering, simple family life. When I started reading the book, I was actually frustrated when the first several chapters had nothing to do with his windmills, but focused on his life. I wanted the other single story of his inspiring move against his economic condition.
The whole talk is fantastic, but one other great moment that lays it out when she illustrates the principle “if you want to dispossess a people, start the story with the word ‘secondly’” and goes on to explain how you can tell the story of Native American starting with arrows (the secondly) rather than the arrival of Europeans, or start with the failure of the African state rather than the colonial creation of those states. This line starts around 10:00.
Here’s a mini-version of the upcoming documentary about William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind:
Watching it today, William’s comment about needing electricity to get to the internet (at 5:21) struck me: “Most people want internet technology, but they can’t use internet technology without electricity.”
This reminds me of some of the smug criticisms of the OLPC project, where critics were piling on that it was inappropriate to provide web access, learning tools, and technology to these countries when there were other pressing needs. While I don’t disagree that there are other pressing needs, this blithe criticism seems ill-informed in light of what William has done for his village with access to a small number of (old) books and the way he has framed electricity as a path to economic development, prevention of famine, increased education, and more culture and enjoyment of life.
Just finishing The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind as the author, William Kamkwamba caps off his US speaking tour with a Daily Show interview (tomorrow). With the money he has raised, William has added solar panels to his village, another windmill and has achieved his goal of irrigating the land for a second season of planting. Now, he’s raising money for a variety of projects on his website.
There is a great range of things to donate to:
Wimbe Primary School Windmill
Books for Village Library
Cost: The need for books is high. $3,000-$5,000 will help further this extensive project.
Practice Jerseys and Children’s-Size Soccer Balls for Wimbe Primary School
Cost: $700, including shipping
Women’s Netball Uniforms
Cost: approximately $5,000
Secondary School Scholarships
Cost: $2,000 for 20 students (10 in public school, 10 in boarding school)
Football Goal Nets (Soccer)
New Primary School
Cost: estimated at a minimum of $50,000
I like the priorities here: the new school is less of a priority than the scholarships, which are the same priority as soccer balls. It’s realistic about giving kids a complete education and life. (For my part, I donated to the book initiative.)
About 3/4 of the way through The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (that’s the Amazon link, the author’s site is here). Terrific book on so many levels. In short, it’s the story of a 13 – 14 year Malawian boy (William Kamkwmaba) who, unable to pay tuition for school after a devastating famine (which his family managed to survive) spends his time reading books about electricity and manages to build, over the course of several months, a windmill (seen above). The story is broader, covering life in his village, the tragic story of the famine, but the arc points towards the windmill.
Oddly, despite my bleeding heart-left tendencies, this is the first time I’ve read a first person account of life during a famine or day-to-day living anywhere in Africa, so nearly everything in the book was a revelation. Right from the beginning, there’s the mix of magic and science in William’s life:
BEFORE I DISCOVERED THE miracles of science, magic ruled the world. Magic and its many mysteries were a presence that hovered about constantly, giving me my earliest memory as a boy—the time my father saved me from
His discovery of science is classic circuit-bender/hacking:
the integrated circuit are little things that look like beans. These are transistors, and they control the power that moves through the radio into the speakers. Geoffrey and I learned this by disconnecting one transistor and hearing the volume greatly reduce. We didn’t own a proper soldering iron, so to perform repairs on the circuit boards, we heated a thick wire over the kitchen fire until it became red hot, then used it to fuse the metal joints together.
Working with whatever left-over pieces he can find, he experiments with anything he can get his hands on and open. In this case, the radio-hacking led to a small repair business. William’s self-education in electronics is interrupted by the famine which nearly kills his immediate family and takes a toll on everyone around him. He describes a funeral tradition from his uncle’s burial, which reminded me of how little I actually know about Africa:
every grave has a hidden compartment at the bottom—usually a smaller cubbyhole carved into the side of the pit—where the coffin slides in. It’s like having your own little bedroom in death. The purpose is to protect the deceased from the falling dirt, or really, to keep the family from seeing the falling dirt land on the coffin.
In the midst of the famine — which is several months of excruciating hunger and day-to-day management of its pains and attempts to secure and ration food — William writes, “DURING THIS TIME OF trouble, I discovered the bicycle dynamo.” The whole book is written with an innocent sense-of-wonder voice and you gotta love a chapter that starts like this. The bicycle dynamo is the little device that attaches to a bike wheel and turns the pedaling into electricity. William’s dissection of the device leads him to a bigger vision:
Without realizing it, I’d just discovered the difference between alternating and direct current. Of course, I wouldn’t know what this meant until much later. After a few minutes of pedaling this upside-down bike by hand, my arm grew tired and the radio slowly died. So I began thinking, What can do the pedaling for us so Geoffrey and I can dance? The dynamo had given me a small taste of electricity, and that made me want to figure out how to create my own. Only 2 percent of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem. Having no electricity meant no lights, which meant I could never do anything at night, such as study or finish my radio repairs, much less see the roaches, mice, and spiders that crawled the walls and floors in the dark. Once the sun goes down, and if there’s no moon, everyone stops what they’re doing, brushes their teeth, and just goes to sleep. Not at 10:00 P.M., or even nine o’clock—but seven in the evening! Who goes to bed at seven in the evening? Well, I can tell you, most of Africa.
This sets up what is at stake as William spends his schoolless months trolling through scrap heaps, digging up unused PVC, pillaging parts from junk, and experimenting with ways to turn a bicycle dynamo into a wind-based power source. There’s so much to write about from this book (what his education was like when he could afford it, the local economy’s more nuanced functioning, how world culture finds it way into his village via radio and the near-random cinema showings), so I’ll reco the book and grab a few more quotes about his inventor side.
I didn’t have a drill, so I had to make my own. First I heated a long nail in the fire, then drove it through a half a maize cob, creating a handle. I placed the nail back on the coals until it became red hot, then used it to bore holes into both sets of plastic blades. I then wired them together. I didn’t have any pliers, so I used two bicycle spokes to bend and tighten the wires on the blades.
The power of self-education:
One day I was looking in some weeds and found the differential of a four-wheel drive. Using my screwdriver, I pried it open and discovered loads of fresh black engine grease. I scraped it into a plastic bag for future use. I also found cotter pins and tangled bits of wire, in addition to things I’d probably never use—brake pedals, gear levers, and the crankshaft of a small car engine.
One day I pretended to be a great mechanic, crawling on my back under the old rusted cars and tractors with the tall grass clutching me in its arms. I shouted up to the customer. “Start it up! Let’s see how she sounds…push the gas, don’t be shy! Whoa, whoa, whoa! That’s too much!” The engine didn’t sound right, so I gave it to them straight: “Looks like you’ll need an overhaul. I know, I know, it’s expensive, but it’s life.” I shouted to my other mechanics, who were slacking as usual. “Phiri, today you’re doing oil changes!” “Yes, boss!”
Once I had more wire and a car battery, I explained, I could store electricity for the times when the wind stops blowing. It could also provide light for the entire house. It would have to be done little by little, but once complete, it would save my parents the money they normally spent on kerosene, and that was just the beginning. The next machine would pump water for our fields. One day, windmills would be our shield against hunger. That night, I was too excited to sleep. After everyone went to bed, I stayed awake and flipped through Explaining Physics, preparing for the next step.
Love this book. Check out his blog also. William is touring the US telling his story and he visited the famous Seattle Public Library.
Bryan and I presented at one of the coolest places so far on our tour: the Seattle Central Public Library. Just think, I started this entire journey in a small library in Wimbe Primary School that only had three shelves of books. So when I saw this place in Seattle, I nearly fell over. If a city puts this much energy and money into their public library, it’s a city for me.
Love this book. That is all.
I’m still uncomfortable at the rush to make everyone designers when we mostly understand design as styling, but Brown makes some great points and highlights things missing from many design thinking talks:
- design has been, and should be again, about big things
- design has its routes in system, systemic, or integrative thinking (it’s pulling together threads in addition to polishing the stone)
- design should start with humans.
The last I would amend on two fronts. First, design can start with technology (“what can I do with this nifty thing?”) so long as it gets grounded in human needs. I’m hoping Brown doesn’t mean it as an either/or but is overmessaging this part as a pendulum swing. Second, I might say instead that design should map back to human needs and be inspired by them. Starting with humans could force us into a habit of asking people what they want when they don’t know the possibilities.
This summer seemed rich (or richer than usual) in social media’s provision of alternative/deeper/more thoughtful views of the 4th of July. Lots of ironic postings, flickrs, and twitpics displaying gluttony or stupid bottle rocket tricks, or song lyrics showing how the 4th, like Christmas, is increasingly detached from its original meaning.
Egalitarian Bookworm (chick?), a blog that always has something good, posted 4 poems on July 4th. Saying these poems are united in that they’re from the dissenters’ POV is too strong, though that’s the easiest category for lumping Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and Walt Whitman.
Ginsberg’s line “America, why are your libraries full of tears?” was always a favorite of mine (especially in the 80s), but even that poem — a long list of things America isn’t/doesn’t/should — is as hurt and mournful as it is angry. But, thanks to Egalitarian Bookworm Chick, I’m back in touch with this passage from Langston Hughes, which seems in line with the charge to dust ourselves off and begin again:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!
Reading and thoroughly digging Steven Johnson’s Invention of Air and seeing an overlap with discussions about planning and innovation (clunky intro, but accurate).
Early in Johnson’s book, he tells the story of how we discovered the Gulf Stream. It was a convergence of vaguely, not immediately apparently, connected things. In the 1760s there were several things being observed by people engaged in undirected, scientific observation. Joseph Priestley was using the new Fahrenheit thermometer to measure ocean water temperatures at different depths and locations. He had no idea if it would add up to something, but was simply curious and observant. Benjamin Franklin had notices that there were “gulph weeds” present along certain lines of sight in the ocean, lines which had little connection to landmass or shorelines. Sailors were informally logging certain places where sailing was smoother and faster. There was also a fascination with and fear of waterspouts.
All of these things were unconnected or loosely connected, until a question about the postal system emerged: why does it take longer for letters to travel from Europe to America than it does for letters to travel in the opposite direction?
Johnson’s characterization of this intellectual convergence, says something about innovation and discovery:
[British authorities curious about this question] were lucky in another respect: the postmaster in question happened to be Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin would ultimately turn that postal mystery into one of the great scientific breakthroughs of his career: a turning point in our visualization of the macro patterns formed by ocean currents. Franklin was well-prepared for the task. As a twenty-year old, traveling back from his first voyage to London in 1726, he had recorded notes in his journal about the strange prevalence of “gulph weed” in the waters of the North Atlantic. In a letter written twenty years later, he had remarked on the slower passage westward across the Atlantic, though at the time he supposed it was attributable to the rotation of the earth.
There’s additional layers to this very compelling story (I just love Johnson’s books), but the key things of interest to me are the components of discovery and invention:
A theme that cuts across all of these is looseness of process connected to open-ness to the new. This is an occasional theme in innovation literature which talks about generosity of spirit, lateral inspiration and thinking, and the ability to quickly move in and out of modes of discourse, multiple configurations of ideas and data points.
(Image taken from http://www.benjaminfranklinhouse.org/)
Psyche! I finally made it to Maker Faire and it was every bit as fun, interesting, and inspiring as I hoped. It was big and massive with welded giants of art and smashery. It was cool and witty with installations that made you laugh and wonder how the hell they did it. It was people-focused, having a large number of things that required no power or revived old skills (from vaudeville to composting to a lotta lotta Victoriana). Most of all, though, it was smart and, I hate to use the word, empowering. Everything had wit and intelligence and everything was comprehensible with a little help from the presenters, who were psyched to explain what they were doing.
My favorite, and I kept going back over and over again, were the soldering areas. Both the MAKERShed (MAKE Magazine’s store at the Faire) and Sparkfun (my favorite purveyor of fine electronic goods) had large tables set up with soldering stations where people could take the kits they had just bought and put them together with the help of staff.
These tables were never less than half full and it looked like there was always a mix of adults/kids, noobs/pros, male/female (though the females were predominantly adult). Sparkfun and Make both did a nice job of putting out projects that were doable, but not simplistic. Some kits let you solder two wires coming out of a battery pack to a thing that’s already running. While you learn to make a decent connection, and you’re not likely to fry any parts, you don’t really learn much and it’s not all that energizing. These kits, involved matching resistors, getting polarities right, and required some precision. I love the intensity on everyone’s faces.
The only disappointment is that there wasn’t much around renewable, social, or eco-preneurial. The DIY ethos was strong — make rather than buy, fix rather than replace — but it seemed like they could have dialed some of that up more, without being over-earnest or taking the fun out of it. Example: they had several playground toys designed by MAKErs. They were fun, looked cool, and had some interesting story to them — one was bicycle powered, one worked like a swing and was powered by leaning and leaning back. It would have been cool, given the theme, to see some of the playground toys that generate electricity or pump water.
Still, it was awesomely fun. I bought my second arduino kit and I’m converting space into a little work area and unpacking my soldering iron and box of switches, pots, leds, resistors, caps, transistors, etc and getting back to work. My first goal is to work with the Peggy:
It’s a board that allows you to address a 25*25 grid of multi-color LEDs. Loads of possibilities, especially if they’re connected and working in synch.
More pictures and vids and more to be added to a set on my flickrstream.