Hello, Fall!

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31 August 2011

FN: 8

Hello, Fall!

I’m writing this on my new Touchpad from the deck overlooking Lake Johnson. It’s not quite 80 degrees outside, a light breeze is chasing a small fleet of sunfish sailboats across the lake, and the sun is that peculiarly perfect shade of golden-yellow that can only mean one thing: fall is coming.

I know that, for some of you, 80 degrees doesn’t mean fall, it means what-the-do-you-mean-fall-is-cool-that’s-blazing-heart-of-July-weather, but trust me: here in central NC, 80 degrees and 50% humidity is damn near sweater weather compared to the 104 degree heat and 95% humidity of a few weeks go. 80 isn’t hot – it’s divine. And in a few weeks, when daytime temperatures are in the 60’s and 70’s, I’ll be entirely ready to put summer aside and dive headlong into the many joys of my favorite season.

Or not.

Sadly, in Burkina Faso, October isn’t fall. It’s a mini hot season. And 80 degrees is freezing-depths-of-January, not pleasant-transition-on-the-way-to-colder-temps. So I wont get to really enjoy the heart of my favorite season. Instead, i’ll get a 2-3 week teaser, followed by 3 years of doing without. In fact, I suspect that in 3 or 4 months I will look back on this sort of weather with a mixture of envy, longing, and amusement: envy for the lush greenery, longing for the cool nights, and amusement at my latent background assumptions via-a-vis weather.

Take, for example, one of the greatest pleasures of cool and cold weather: hot showers. There’s almost no better sensation than waking up on a crisp morning and hopping straight into a shower that’s hot enough to melt lead. It’s invigorating, refreshing, and makes you want to go out and do things. Waking up to a cold bucket bath doesn’t quite have the same effect. I barely like taking cold showers when it’s 90+ outside; I can’t imagine it will be fun in February, when daytime temps are “only” in the 80’s. Why, I might even be cold!

For good or for ill, I’m about to move from a land of 4 seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter) to a land of 2 (rainy season, dry season). I’m sure it will have its perqs: no endless bitter cold stretches from mid-January to late March, no five-straight-weeks-of-snow-wtf-I-HATE-this-shit-that’s-it-I’m-moving-to-Florida, and no raking leaves. But from where I’m sitting, right here right now, the loss of 3 autumns seems too heartrending to bear.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going sailing while I still can.

Picture of the Day:


A bird’s eye view of my current locale. I’m in the boathouse by the bridge on the left, looking out across the widest part of the lake.

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Why you should be jealous

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29 August 2011

FL: 7

Why you should be jealous

More tech-savvy readers will already know this, but for those of you who have others things to do than keep track of geek news, last week HP decided to get out of the tablet market entirely, after getting their ass handed to them by Apple. Late on the evening of the 19th (Friday), HP announced a fire sale on all tablets: $99 for the 16GB model (previously $499) and $149 for the 32GB version (previously $599).

Given the relative quality of the Touchpad and the steep discount, what happened next was inevitable: by 9 am the next morning, HP.com, BestBuy.com, BestBuy.ca, Staples.com, Amazon.com, and every other major provider had sold out. Some people drove hundreds of miles to get one. Many bought 3, 4, and even 5, in hopes of profiting via resale on Craigslist and Ebay. In fact, for a brief 24 hour period, the Touchpad was far and away the hottest selling piece of electronics on the planet.

And I was lucky enough to get one.

Now don’t get me wrong: the Touchpad isn’t an iPad. In terms of marketing, apps, support, or sheer hipster sex appeal, it doesn’t even come close. But it’s still pretty damn awesome. It has 32 GB memory, can run more major apps you’ve heard of (Facebook, YouTube, NYTimes, etc), and some Apple can’t (Grooveshark (for free!)! Spotify (for free!)!). Its operating system, WebOS, is pretty sexy. And what it can’t do now, it will be able to do soon: already the open-source community is working on getting Android 3.0 up and running on it, at which point it will have access to the full store of Android apps as well.

All of which makes me pretty damn happy.

I wanted a tablet to take to Africa. They’re a great teaching and business tool, they’re a useful music player, ebook reader, and casual gaming platform, and (most importantly) unlike a laptop they charge via USB so you can easily power them via a portable solar charger. I’ll have an iPhone. But blogging on it is a pain in the ass. I’ll have a netbook. But I may not be able to reliably charge it. The Touchpad will bridge the gap between the two, giving me most of the functionality of the latter, but with most of the portability of the former.

The only problem was that iPads cost $500+. If you don’t know, Western Africa has one of the harshest environments on Earth for electronics: the moisture and mildew of the monsoon, followed by the grit and dust of the harmattan. It’s not a question of if but when the environment kills whatever computing devices I might bring with[1]. My phone is already 2 years old. My netbook was $200. I can afford to lose those. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to drop $600 on one of the most sought-after pieces of precision electronics on the planet, just to take it someplace that might kill it in a week.

So until last weekend, I was in something of a quandary: the device I wanted, I couldn’t and wouldn’t get, but because there weren’t really any cheaper competitors, my only option seemed to be buying and rooting a Nook Color. It was an unsatisfactory compromise at best, and one I was holding off making until the last possible minute. Boy, am I glad I did.

Now, I’m happy. My phone is fine, my netbook is fixed, and I have the tablet I wanted to complement them.

And it only cost me $150.

That’s why you should be jealous.

Picture of the Day:

My new Touchpad. Isn’t it pretty? It makes me happy. C’mon, Touchdroid…


[1] Especially delicate touchscreen devices. And remember kiddies –  I won’t be living in a climate-controlled house like we do in the US: when it rains, the interior of my home will be muggy and damp; when it’s dusty, I’ll be shaking grit out of everything I own.

Unconscious assumptions

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27 August 2011

FL: 7

Unconscious assumptions

As I type this, Hurricane Irene is gradually churning its way up the Outer Banks, lightly dusting central NC with rain and moderate wind. Thus far, the damage has been negligible, although rumor has it DC and NYC are currently panicking and bracing for what they seem to think will be Katrina Redux. I hate to disappoint them, but all they’re going to get out of it is a lot of rain and less wind than a routine nor’easter.

However, we have had the minor inconvenience of the power being out for the past hour or so. I’m fully confident that it will be back on before I’ve even finished typing this post, but in the meantime we’re going through all of the usual dumbass moments that we all have when the power is out: trying to turn on the TV, hitting the light switch every time we enter a room, looking at the microwave to see the time, etc.

Since I don’t have much else to do but sit and think right now, this actually has me pondering what sort of unconscious assumptions I’ll be taking to Africa with me. For example, I don’t think it’s really hit me until just right now that no electricity means not just being unable to charge a computer or have a refrigerator, but also not having sockets and switches in every room. It means candles and lamps for light, fire for heat, and probably going to bed no later than 9 in order to save money on lighting costs.

It’s not that any of these ideas are new or alien – after all, I’ve had months to prepare myself for them – it’s just that there is a very real difference between intellectually realizing something and emotionally and physically accepting it.

And that’s just one example. I’m sure there are hundreds of others that I won’t (or can’t) think about until they happen to me. Take this famous quote on assumptions in reasoning, concerning the things you take for granted when ordering in restaurants:

Think for a moment about the many assumptions required during the simple act of ordering a meal at a restaurant. You assume that: the prices on the menu are correct; the items on the menu are available; the description of the food is reasonably accurate; the waiter will understand what you say when you order; the food will not sicken or kill you; the restaurant will accept your payment, et cetera[1].

This may seem a bit obvious, but it elucidates a key point: it’s not the remarkable stuff that is most likely to trip me up, it’s the routine things that I take for granted. My “African” experience isn’t going to be defined by elephants and lions roaming the Serengeti, or even by native tribesmen living their traditional pastoral lives. It’s going to be defined by myself, and the ways in which I come to terms with all the little daily challenges of life in a completely different setting. I’ll need to make friends with people whose language I barely speak, I’ll need to learn to enjoy life in a context that my current cultural context has trained me to think of as uncomfortable and unpleasant, and I’ll need to learn to roll with the punches as each day brings new and unexpected assaults on my latent assumptions. It could be intriguing.

It will definitely be challenging.

I’m determined to make it fun.

 

Picture of the Day:

 

A view of the Farmer’s Market restaurant in Raleigh, a popular destination for weekend brunch.

Nuts and bolts

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27 August 2011

FL: 8.5

Nuts and bolts

It’s almost September, which means there’s about 6 weeks to the day before I get on the plane and go. As I’ve mentioned before, I still have lots of things to buy, French to learn, stuff to store, and plans to make. One thing I also have to deal with is this blog.

While I will probably have some sort of relatively regular internet access in Africa (it depends on your posting, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic to plan for at least bi-weekly trips to an internet café), what I won’t have is much in the way of a connection. I’ll probably be dealing with antiquated near- or below-dialup speeds, and per kilo- or mega-byte charges for downloads. Even if I get lucky and get posted in a city and have the chance to have personal internet through the phone company, it still will be a pretty hefty step down from what I’m used to here in the States.

It was with that reality in mind that I originally chose the theme and layout of this blog. It’s very basic, easy to edit, and doesn’t require much in the way of computing power to maintain. However, it’s also kind of visually uninteresting. Bland, even. So I think some changes are in order.

New features

  1. The FL Number: The first thing that I will be including in each post is the FL number (found at the top left of each page). FL stands for “focus level”, and this number is a reflection of how much time and energy I devoted to the post, with a 1 representing pretty much no time or energy spent writing it and 10 representing perhaps a couple of days’ formulation, extensive research, and a certain amount of prewriting and editing. This number will not reflect just time spent; that is to say, if I spend 2.5 hours wrangling with a slow and glitchy internet connection just to publish a post I only spent 15 minutes writing, it would be a 2 or a 3, not a 9 or a 10.  The number is a reflection of time spent on the post itself, not on associated activities. I’m including this number for two reasons: it gives you the reader an idea of the relative importance of a given blog post, and it will give my future self looking back on this a better sense of just how busy I was or was not on a given day. This doesn’t matter so much on a slow day – such as today, for example – but I think it will matter greatly when I’m really pressed for time, such as when I’m travelling, training, or unable to access the internet for an extended period of time.
  2. The Picture of the Day: A picture really is worth a thousand words. Posts that have pictures in them are more interesting, get more readership, and are easier to remember. So I’m going to start including a Picture of the Day with every blog post. They may or may not be directly related to what the post is about, but they will help provide a little visual insight into what is going at the time. Obviously, I’m not in Africa yet, but I’m going to start doing them today anyway, in order to get in the habit of doing it.
  3. Shameless Plugs of the Week: The Peace Corps is all about helping others. I’m sure once I really get up and running at my site, I’ll have all kinds of projects that will need external funding. And if I don’t, I bet some of my fellow volunteers will. And if we don’t, I’m quite positive that I can find countless other worthy causes to beat you over the head with. So once a week, generally but not necessarily on Friday, I will put up two posts: the regular daily post, and a post for the Shameless Plug of the Week. You don’t have to donate (although it would be awesome if you did), but if you could help spread the word via Facebook, your own blog, what have you, well…that would be really swell.
  4. The Archive: I didn’t set one up when I first started the blog because…well…you have to have posts to archive them. Now I do, so the archive on the right should be a permanent feature moving forward.

Updated Features

  1. The Theme: Although I personally am pretty happy with the current theme, I’m considering changing to something else. Sadly, the only way to really get a good feel for what a theme looks and works like is to install it. So the look and feel of the blog may change a few times here and there. When it does, I will always include a poll so that you the reader can give me feedback on whether you think the new look is an improvement or a distraction. I’ll try not to change it more than once or twice a week, just to keep things from getting too schizophrenic.
  2. The Wishlist: As I’m getting closer to leaving, my need for stuff is rapidly intensifying. Accordingly, my wishlist is being updated and changed pretty regularly. Check it out! (I know no one is going to magically spring for a $400 camera, but if you’re trying to think “Christmas presents”, a pair or two of those quick-dry underwear would really help me out 😉 )
  3. Maps, Links, and the Blogroll: I first included those feature when I set this blog up, and to be honest I haven’t looked at them once since then. That will be changing. I’ll be including a list of books to read, articles to peruse, and other useful writings that you might be interested in. I don’t expect you guys to take quite as much of a professional interest in Burkina Faso as I have, but I believe strongly in the increase of knowledge and the resources will be there if you want them.

Ok, well that’s it for now. The times they are a changing. Consider yourself notified. If I get feedback, I will incorporate it accordingly. If I don’t, well…it’s my blog, and I’ll do whatever I damn well please.

Now, last but not least…

Picture of the Day:

Phoebe, looking all too hopeful for a slice of my leftover pizza. Isn’t she adorable? Surely, I will miss her more than the rest of you combined. Which is as it should be.

 

A little help for a worthy cause?

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25 August 2011

A little help for a worthy cause (OR, a shameless plug)?

This post is entirely unsolicited. I wasn’t asked to write it, I’m just trying to help a good friend and a great cause. So if you have any problems with people asking for money, please blame me and not Ms. McLamb or the Special Olympics of North Carolina.

A close friend of mine is trying to raise money to help the Special Olympics of North Carolina. If she can get $1000 in donations by October 1, 2011, she will earn the dubious reward of having to rappel down the 30-story Wachovia Building in downtown Raleigh. I’ve already donated my $40, but I’m going in the Peace Corps and have a limited budget; maybe some of you might consider donating as well to make up for what I can’t? It’s an amazing cause. Also, let’s be honest: seeing the look on her face when she goes over the edge of that roof would probably be the best send-off gift a guy could have…

 

 

‎”If you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better.” – J.K. Rowling

Thanks for your time and consideration!

Reminders of home

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25 August 2011

Reminders of home

Life is interesting. For all that we complain about how it isn’t exciting enough, or how all we really want to do is be somewhere else, deep down inside we love our little daily routines.

This posting is my ode to those little daily pleasures. It’s less a listing of particular people and events than it is a pastiche of all the random bits and pieces of daily life – and especially daily life in eastern NC – that I quietly love. They don’t sound like much, but I’m sure there will come a time when I will miss them deeply while I am in Africa. I hope this post might serve as an anchor of sorts – a reminder of who I am, where I’m from, and what I have to look forward to upon my return (whenever that may be). At the very least, maybe it will bring me some comfort when I’m feeling down and out about where I am and what I’m doing.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I would deeply appreciate any contributions that you might be able to make to it. Add away to your heart’s content (especially you North Carolinians who no longer live in state, and who thus have a much keener appreciation than I for the lost pleasures of home).All I ask is that you keep your input clean and positive.

 I’m sure this posting will grow with time. This list is in no particular order.

  • Eastern NC Barbeque
  • Surf kayaking
  • The two leading ladies in my life: Maggie and Phoebe
  • Seasons: spring flowers, autumn leaves, and snow
  • Baseball, college football, and ACC basketball
  • Being able to wear shorts in public
  • Disc golf. Especially on the campus course at UNC
  • Live theater
  • The smell of oak trees after a thunderstorm
  • Grass so thick you can’t touch the ground through it even after you’ve mowed
  • Long, hot showers whenever I feel like it
  • Dawn on the breakwater at the south end of Carolina Beach
  • Cold nights made pleasant by thick, fluffy comforters, and warm, heavy quilts
  • Songbirds: mourning doves, mockingbirds, blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, wrens, sparrows, starlings, and the tufted titmouse[1]
  • Long leaf pines and azaleas
  • Body pillows
  • Fish tacos from K-38
  • The Haw River
  • My mom’s spaghetti, tacos, and German chocolate cake
  • The sound of cicadas on a hot summer night
  • Listening to my dad complain about his dogs
  • Being able to blend into a crowd
  • The smell of a freshly mown lawn
  • Sweet tea (as a concept; I hate drinking the stuff)
  • Being alone in a car
  • WCPE 89.7FM and WUNC 91.5FM
  • Weather: fog, perfect spring mornings, random breezy days, high crisp crystal clear Carolina blue skies, and endless golden fall afternoons
  • Vlad, Cthulu, and all 4 chickens
  • The ocean
  • Bojangles, Cook-Out, Harris Teeter, Cup A Joe, Port City Java, Trolley Stop, PT’s, YMCA, Los Tres Magueyes, Sushi Thai, K-38, La Farm, Flying Saucer, and Parker’s[2]
  • The sound of seagulls crying
  • The mindless pursuits of youth: mini-golf, bowling, flag football and video games[3]
  • Live bluegrass music
  • Lake Johnson
  • Cold skim milk
  • Raking leaves[4]
  • Mr. Car. Driving. The freedom of movement provided by owning your own vehicle
  • The horrible smell of egg water from a lawn sprinkler
  • Fourth of July fireworks
  • The smell of fresh shellfish cooking (even if I can’t eat it)
  • DH Hill, Davis, Wilson, and Perkins Libraries
  • Sad cold rainy winter days when all you want to do is put on some quiet music and curl up in front of the fireplace with a good book
  • The beach
  • The mountains. Especially the Laurel Falls Trail, Roan Mountain, Dennis Cove Mountain, Shining Rock, Sliding Rock, and the Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Good beer. Made from a starch other than millet.
  • Ice
  • Freshly picked apples, still cold  from the ice water bath used to clean them off
  • Pine cones
  • Corn on the cob, Brunswick stew, clam chowder (one of the few shellfish dishes I’ll run the risk to eat), and baked beans
  • To be continued…


[1] What is the plural of tufted titmouse? Tufted titmouses? Tufted titmice? I’m really not sure.

[2] What can I say? I have plebian tastes 😛

[3] *Very* plebian tastes

[4] Especially when you can rake them in a nice big pile, and then burn the pile. Mowing the lawn, I will not miss. Not one bit.

Why I don’t use hard drugs

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24 August 2011

Why I don’t use hard drugs

Note: today’s post contains some very graphic images of a medical nature that some readers may find disturbing. If you don’t have a strong stomach, or if that’s not your thing, please stop here instead of reading on and then complaining to me about it. Thanks.

It has been my experience that, when people find out that you’re going to an almost unknown country like Burkina Faso, they immediately become interested in the process that led to your being assigned there. They want to know where it is. What the weather’s like. How safe or unsafe it is. And whether or not you “wanted” to go there. That last question always gets me a little. I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I didn’t have any strong preference for one country or another[1]. So no, I didn’t choose Burkina Faso, save in the sense that I chose the offered job that seemed most interesting and compatible with my needs.

That being said, during your PC interview, you definitely can state certain broad preferences. For example, I’m allergic to mold and pollen, so I requested that I perhaps not be sent someplace where I was likely to spend two years in an allergy-destroying rainforest environment. Similarly, I was disinclined to spend 2 years on a very small island[2]. If I had been posted to either country, I would have gone, but all things being equal I was just as glad to be sent somewhere else.

However, I don’t know if I can say the same for a couple of countries that the Peace Corps posts to. I’m from eastern NC. Winter here is a brief two-month spate of temperatures in the 30’s and 40’s, interspersed with quick dips into the 20’s and occasional snow. We dependably experience weather in the 80’s right into November, and mid-February warming spells in the 70’s are almost more common than not. If I had been posted to someplace like Ukraine, Krygyzstan, or Kazahkstan, where sub-zero temperatures are the norm for 4 months straight and summer is really more of a 6 or 8 week warm stretch, I might have had to decline. I’m willing to put up with a lot, but being miserably cold for the better part of two years isn’t really something I’m keen on doing.

Even if the weather hadn’t run me off, there are some other cultural oddities in those countries that might have kept me away anyway. Kyrgyzstan has bridal kidnappings, and I’m not sure I could just stand by and watch when one took place near me[3]. Serving in Kazakhstan would mean a lifetime of Borat jokes when I got back, and I’m not sure I want to deal with that. And Ukraine has krokodil.

For those of you who don’t know, krokodil is to Russia and the Ukraine what crystal meth is to large swaths of the central US: a cheap, easily made drug that produces an instant, ecstatic high and causes pretty horrific degradation to the bodies of those who use it. But while meth makes you tweak and get a meth face, krokodil turns you into a zombie:

 

 

Basically, it’s a cheap and “dirty” form of morphine that causes tissue to rot when it comes in contact with it. A clean hit on a vein does pretty horrible internal damage, but miss the vein and inject it into tissue, and you get the pictures above. Just in case you were wondering, there’s no cure for that, other than amputation.

Which is why I wouldn’t want to be around it. I know that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians are good, hardworking, upstanding people, and I in no way mean to imply that I am judging their nation by the misbehavior of a few suffering souls. But even the offhand chance that I might encounter one of these users is enough to keep me away entirely. My mother is an amputee. We tried everything possible to save her foot, and didn’t consent to the amputation until her it was covered in necrotic bullae, suffering from gas gangrene, and generally looked like unrefrigerated meat[4]:

If I were to bump into one of these users, who had stupidly pissed away what my Mom fought her hardest to hang onto, I’m genuinely afraid I would lose it. I’m not a violent man, but I would rather avoid the temptation that such a circumstance might bring on. Besides…it’s really cold there in the winter. Yeah, that’s it.

Happily, while Burkina Faso has many problems, widespread drug abuse isn’t one of them. While alcohol and marijuana abuse is increasingly common throughout Africa, hard drugs are relatively unknown. I’m not saying that you couldn’t find heroin in Ouagadougou if you tried, but you would have to work at it. The culture isn’t accepting of drug use, the penalties for getting caught are ferocious, and let’s be honest: being bored and (relatively) wealthy enough to have time and money to kill making and using drugs is really only a perversion of more developed nations. When you’re 22 and unemployed in Russia or the US, you get sad and depressed and sit around and think about drug use. When you’re 22 in Mali or Burkina Faso, you have a family to support and fields to work and absolutely no time to play with some OTC drugs and a chemistry set in hopes of finding a new way to get high. It’s just not a possibility the way it is in the flyover states. And that’s just fine by me.


[1] Ok, that’s a lie: my dream in life is to get paid to live in southern France, and if the Peace Corps went there, I would have had an almost overwhelming preference for one country over another. I would also have had a preference for Tahiti, Turkey, Rio, or Vancouver. But happily for my peace of mind, PC doesn’t go there.

[2] No offense to either country; I’m sure they’re wonderful places, and home to amazing people. I just know that I personally wouldn’t be a good fit for two years in either locale. I would love to visit, though.

[3] Which Peace Corps volunteers are required to do.

[4] I have pictures of my mother’s injuries, but to protect her privacy I’ve just uploaded a publicly available picture from Google instead. Her leg looked much like this, but covered in 20 – 30 golf-ball-sized-and-larger pale white blisters. It was *very* disturbing.

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