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Archive for March, 2012

St. Patrick (Monday, 2012 March 19)

March 21st, 2012

St. Patty’s Day is one of those holidays that we celebrate a lot because it reminds us that we’re Americans. We gathered at Yaya’s/Eric’s posts to play frisbee and drink. A lot could be said about this party but won’t be. A picture is worth a thousand words. I had a good time but I ended up with a headache before I even went to bed and started to run a fever when I got home the next day. I don’t think that’s supposed to happen just from drinking too much, but I’m still a novice at this so I’m not sure.

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Me and Yaya in our "matching" "vests". We went shopping for this pagne together!

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Green beer was formed by the addition of mint syrup, which wasn’t as bad as it deserved to be.

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We smelled Danny a lot. (He smells really good.)

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Charlie’s Angels.

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One of The Boys wanted to know if Lindsey was pregnant. No, and she’s really so damned skinny that it doesn’t even make sense to ask.

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Suddenly, Dance Party. Pay attention to Yaya’s expression in these photos. I think she’s queen of the photobombs.

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This outfit dates from Halloween and yes, includes a matching tank top, tuxedo vest, pants, and (I’m still waiting for) the hoodie.

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This is a meal that Josiane prepared for me before I left. I guess this means, yes, girlish crush. It’s koki, a Cameroonian dish made from a bean of the same name that you grind up and sort of steam. It was served in a banana leaf (which I removed for this picture) and the complement was macabo, what they call "cocoyams" but are neither coco nor yams.

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Destinée (Friday, 2012 March 16)

March 16th, 2012

[I’ve been "studying French" for two years and I still don’t know the word for "coincidence", for what it’s worth. I’m not even sure about "destiny", which seems to be either destin or destinée..]

I joined the Church because of a coincidence. Most of us do, of course.

I guess with the benefit of hindsight, preeventualism kind of warmed me up to the ideas. The preeventualist doesn’t need to master a philosophy; it’s good enough to just pre-believe pre-philosophies. The essential human nature is positive, optimistic, hopeful. So isn’t that enough?

See here’s the story: I was riding a bus with my suitcase of clothes and "personal items" after my wife threw me out after a screaming row about something obscure I don’t even remember any more. Maybe my friendship with an old flame. The guy next to me on the bus was a knotty old man even worse off than I was, and he tied me up in religious debate that rapidly became an aggressive little sermon. He was Pentecostal. He was a firm believer in the power of prayer, to the point that he asserted that if you prayed, sincerely, with the right words and prayers, God would straight up talk to you.

It’s weird how religion works. It’s distributed unevenly, not exactly a bell curve but with correlations and covariances all over the place. Anyhow, I needed him to shut up, and I’m nothing if not populist or a scientist. So I agreed for him and myself to try his little science experiment: I’d try to pray. All I really want is to be a good person. If God can tell me what to do, why not?

I ended up in some hotel that rented by the hour, heaved my suitcase into a moth-eaten room with a funny smell. At that point in my life I didn’t drink but I self-medicated in a rainbow of other ways: potato chips, sugar highs, mind candy, video games, staying up too late. I started to get punchy and then maudlin around 1 AM local time when the weight and exhaustion of being "on" for 12 hours of constant crisis hit me. Blood alcohol content of 0% or whatever sober is, but let’s say I was five sachets of strung-out on one sachet’s worth of bad decisions. I stumbled into the shower to wash the whole thing off. And I decided to engage in that little experiment the gnarled old man told me about.

I knelt in that filthy shower and I prayed. I even said the magic spell he gave me: "I believe in Jesus as God’s son and my savior. I repent for my sins and accept Jesus into my heart", or something like that. And you know what? Not a single thing happened.

I flashed back on his insistence on sincerity and I guessed that there was maybe some aspect in my heart still resistant, still too proud to accept submission the way the words implied. I tried to suppress or remove that part, and I said the same words again. And again. And finally I gave up and just said what I thought: "Listen, whoever or whatever’s out there. I just want to do right and be a good person. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it." And then I started crying.

And absolutely nothing happened. Not even silence — just the same white noise, the same everyday sounds of a place along a major artery. So after a while I pulled myself together and climbed into bed and curled up in a tight fetal position and fell asleep.

The next morning I woke up and got everything together and got ready to keep moving. Pulled myself out the front door of my cut-rate motel into bright, clear sunlight. The smells of motor exhaust and mowed grass hung beneath an enormous blue sky. And across the thoroughfare, a church. A Church of the Universal Stochastic. I don’t know if I didn’t notice the billboard when I came in the last night, or what, but it said: "God doesn’t give answers, only questions."

Where was I going in such a hurry? I went over and picked up a pamphlet.

The Church of the Universal Stochastic’s dogmas don’t seem completely internally consistent to me, but I guess faith is always a little irrational. Here’s what I got from the pamphlet:

  • God loves us and wants what’s best for us, and He gives it to us whether we want it or not. He visits bad things upon us to spare us from worse things, or to provide us with opportunities for growth. And growth is big. God doesn’t tell you what to do because you are supposed to figure it out — no easy answers. But if you listen carefully, you’ll get hints.
  • God has a plan, and a judicious look around should make it clear to you that this plan is a positive one. Things fall together. Violence declines. People learn to treat each other better. God works on big scales and engineers things for trends, not for individual successes.
  • And yet at the same time it seems like He sets things up for us. Coincidences, hints. I think the principle here is: because the trend is positive, and because God acts in ways that fit comfortably within the null hypothesis, you’re safe just flipping the coin and going always with "heads". Change is generally for the better. Go forth and be confident.

The Church is something of an agitator for development and aid, seeing progress as God’s work. I’d also taken a pamphlet on their offworld volunteering program and I saw a program in Education. Livable stipend — not as nice as a Foreign Service Officer, but survivable. And being a good person is free. I did OK with xenolinguistics in high school. So why not throw that suitcase on the next starship to anywhere else and see if this is what I was meant to do?

God’s plan is subtle and maybe I was "meant" to be here to incite this revolution, or maybe I’m serving some role for some young Zhenae who will grow up to do something amazing, or maybe I’m here for my own spiritual growth. I’m not sure. But even in Sumi there’s a saying along the lines of "You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs". We’re here for progress, and Zhen represents stasis. Anything is better than stasis. Even outright disaster.

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Réseau (Saturday, 2012 March 10)

March 10th, 2012

Club Informatique and I have been starting work on constructing our local-area network (réseau local) with the materials we got from the préstataire a month or two ago. First, I "hired"/invited a technician from Aladji Informatique to come give a talk about how to sertir (we’d say "crimp") an Ethernet cable. That was Wednesday.

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It’s nice to not be at the front of the class for once.

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This is one of the 4e classrooms that we commandeered for the lesson.

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Domche, Cat 5 cable, Wolverine sideburns.

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My hair is growing out.

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This is Josiane. She’s the daughter of Madame-Ann-the-orange-lady and she’s basically adorbs. She speaks really quietly and quickly and she avoids eye contact and she’s at this stage where every time she touches the computer at all, it’s wide-eyed magical. "Try it," I’ll say, and then she will and she’ll get this look of awestruck wonder. The other day she asked how long I was going to stay here in this country and finding that it was "only" five months, she got really sad, maybe even cried a little bit. I couldn’t tell if it was honest distress at not being able to learn informatique from me — "but there’ll be other volunteers," I said, and she replied, "but they won’t be you" — or something of a girlish crush. "I can’t stay," I told her. "I’m an only child, and every day that I’m here, my parents suffer without me" — my go-to reason for why I’m not staying any longer. In a rash decision I told her that when she gets her Bac she can come visit me in the States, figuring that if it is a girlish crush it’ll give her something to fixate on long enough to get over it. I regretted it pretty much immediately but yesterday she slipped a note into my bag that says "Grand merci as you have made me go to class. What you said to me the other day was true because you told me that you’re the only child to your mother. Me too I’ve thought a lot." So who knows.

We set up a couple cables yesterday — some of them seem to work but they made about a dozen that seem faulty in one way or another and need to be triaged. I demonstrated that the network was working using the nc command to set up a rudimentary telnet server, but with luck tomorrow I can set up some real filesharing software and a web server or something. Also, I’d really love to set up a few networked games — since ZSNES is already on the computers, that would be cool, and something cute like Teeworlds would be wonderful. I’d school them, of course, but I’d be humble about it.

This is the most successful project I’ve had as a volunteer, and it’s really gratifying (as opposed to the other year and a half of pure slog). It’s a little depressing, though, that it took me this long to get to a point where something like this could actually happen. More as it develops..

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Héritage (Sunday, 2012 March 4)

March 4th, 2012

Yaya found this amazing research paper on the different impacts of British versus French colonial policy, which she produced to support my assertion that Anglophone Cameroonians are just better in general than Francophone Cameroonians (more polite or respectful, more engaging, or just better people). It’s been sitting on my hard drive for a couple weeks, I’m only just now getting to read it. It touches on a lot of my favorite things: data analysis, judging people, and Anglophones. It is full of wonderful juicy bits:

Hall and Jones (1999) find that output per worker is correlated with language, with English having a particularly strong positive effect, which they see as being primarily caused by the positive economic effect of European settlement.

Or

The arbitrary nature of colonial boundaries in Africa provided the starting point for a number of scholars to conduct qualitative small n-studies, generally comparing members of the same ethnic group on different sides of a boundary. Miles (1994) studied the Hausa of Nigeria and Niger, Welch (1966) the Ewe of Togo and Ghana, and Asiwaju (1976) the Yoruba of Nigeria and Benin. All argued that there were very marked differences in policy across empires, with the British-controlled areas being characterized by greater economic dynamism and respect for traditional political institutions than French-controlled areas.

Or

The economic efficiency of Protestantism is supported by Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2001) who found evidence for the effect of religion on per capita income.

Or

The dream of a German empire in Central Africa, and the careers of a generation of German-speaking Africans, were destroyed by the outbreak of the First World War.

You really ought to read this paper, it’s wonderful.

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Confiance (Sunday, 2012 March 4)

March 4th, 2012

You may have a hard time believing that her parents really named her Bulimia, but most Zhenae don’t believe that your parents really named you a word that translates as "cloaca", so it’s perfectly plausible that she be a volunteer here, in this same village as me. We are drinking for the whole usual litany of reasons and I am noting the prevalence of those armbands. We are splitting our sixth beer, which makes it something like three per person, but I think I have been drinking a little more than Bulimia on each of those six beers so maybe it is more like three and a half versus two and a half. It appears that beer affects me more sincerely than wine or sachets because I am seething with incoherent drunken rage. Bulimia has been telling me stories upon stories and I no longer trust anyone in this village or even on this planet. I am explaining that I do not think it is their fault but that culturally I do not think Zhenae are equipped to feel love. They can’t, they just can’t the same way that we do. They don’t trust each other. Earther love is based on trust. How can you be in love with someone when you can’t even give them the truth or trust that they are giving the truth to you?

Bulimia is a little older than me and she is looking at me with eyes that say that she is about to give me the full benefit of those years of wisdom. She says, "Don’t forget about Sally," who is two villages over and marrying a Zhenae, "or her fiancé Road. I think this is one of those racial tension things. Equatorial Zhenae aren’t the same as the plateau Zhenae we have here. I think Road is capable of love in a way that David isn’t." (David being the name of a particularly notorious villager.)

"I just hope Road is…" and I fumble for a moment, trying to decide what I want to wish about him. He’s a good guy and at best he seems to love Sally. "I just hope Road is exactly as he seems."

"I’ll drink to that," Bulimia says, and so we do. Night is falling, and we have to decide whether to order the seventh beer or what. Bulimia suggests we move to one of our houses, not in a seductive way but in the sisterly way that develops when you share a village with someone. Even Zhenae friends of mine have commented on how isolated I am and how stressed I seem to be, and I would like to continue this little Earther bitchfest but I have class in the morning so if I am going to continue drinking, I should do it at home and alone. So we part ways.

Hiring transport on this planet is always an adventure. The trick is to be liberal about calling out your destination. "College Intersection," I shout, and on the fourth time a grav-drop slows long enough for me to board, and after I promise him less money than I spent on beer, we are heading uphill. He is wearing an armband, and by way of support I tell him, "Hey, nice armband". He snorts something like amusement. That’s basically as much as I can do in one night, so I just enjoy the ride and figure I’ll cope with this planet better in the morning.

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