postheadericon TECH TALK: On New Technology and Even Newer Politicos

There has been much talk in the press recently about how new social media tools (such as Facebook and Twitter) are influencing political situations around the globe. And in Nepal, there has been some mud slung at the connected youth of the country (as well as some praise) in regards to what these young online politicos are trying to accomplish while using new-age social tools.

As an expat, I can’t say that I understand what the heck is going on in regards to Nepal’s constitution writing and all the rest, but I do know technology, and feel comfortable discussing tech, especially in light of the recent reports in the Nepali media about youth using social media to organize either beer parties or political rallies (not sure which).

It was recently noted by esteemed columnist CK LAL that “...that Facebook posters hardly represent a significant section of Nepali society”, and that those that are online, “are fashionable faces articulating their views in impeccable English.” I don’t think CK is reading the same Nepali YouTube comments that I am, as most all are written in the most abysmal English imaginable. But whatever the Twitter / Facebook population is, and despite their grasp (or not) of comment-writing English, there are lots more young ‘uns playing Cityville, Farmville, and Mafia Wars than discussing the future direction of the country. They are more likely to be twittering about what their favorite pop star is wearing than what their government representatives are doing.

But this is soon to change, mark my words...

The assumption that the current young & connected will not impact the political processes in a country is a false one. It is also false to assume that the connected represent a small minority of the country. That’s because the technology we are talking about (social media) has a tendency to spread ideas virally... and across digital boundaries – they spread like a flash fire would in Thamel, jumping all economic and class boundaries.

Social media works that way too. And tiny numbers have the potential to multiply into larger ones at the strike of a match. Take Facebook revenues, doubling each year to perhaps top a billion this year, just as the Facebook user base is likely to do. Likewise, look at Twitter users, who are growing globally at a rate of 1400% annually. And no, that’s not a typo...that’s 1400% percent per year.

Nepal is a country where Internet access is relatively cheap (buy a scratch card from Broadlink and you get 1 month of internet for Rs.499) and whose population is mostly young, you have a potential political tinderbox prepared to ignite online, ala Eqypt. After all, 99% or mobiles on the market (and in young pockets) have the ability to twitter “PRT twitterverse: rally @ king’s park @ 7pm tx ttys”.

Of course this is not to say that Nepalese youths are interested in rallying up in defense of freedom and democracy (let alone constitutional writing), but as older adults, we would be foolish to deny their potential. However, that’s what older adults have done for as long as I can remember.

Which in a roundabout way reminds me of an old western saying, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Today that saying goes more like this: “You can drop a horse in a lake, and providing she doesn’t drown, she will be well hydrated.”

Today’s youth is immersed in technology that they barely understand, and it is these peeps that are coming up with new ways to use these new tools created by their peers. And it’s us old farts that are standing outside the game zone thinking, “Oh, nothing will ever come of that...”

A close expat-friend of mine is always talking about Internet voting and e-democracy on a national and even global scale. In this case, the horse is miles from the nearest drink. The technical obstacles for creating a one-person, one-vote system is on the cusp of being solved, but the more practical matter of getting the current political institutions (rife with lobbyists and special interests) to ever go along with a true people-driven democracy is another ball of pain.

Ross Perot hinted at an adoption of e-democracy back in 1996 during his failed US presidential campaign (using Sci-Fi writer Heinlein’s Take Back Your Government treatise on the subject) - but look how far that got him...a very prominent place...in obscurity!

But leave it up to the youngsters to actually revive the old idea of e-democracy in the form of a LIKE button. Some estimates are as high as 3 billion Facebook “like” buttons are clicked every day. And anyone that is selling an idea or product online is looking for those “likes.” It’s a simple stretch to assume that some form of the Like button could become the yea or nay vote of yesterday.

But can something like the Internet with social media and online groupthink tangibly influence anything outside of sales? Seems to have in Egypt. So there is no reason to think that Nepali government products (re: politicians) won’t be the next breed of dinosaur to undergo an iTunes-like revamp.

Yet there is a long way to go before twittering and social networking groups (created on sites like Facebook) provoke real political change by becoming a sustainable political force on their own. And there is one big danger...those in power (and stand to lose it) can easily shut it all down in the blink of an eye, as seen in the middle-east uprisings.

That’s why instead of debating whether or not social networks can indeed impact social policy, we should be instead lobbying for policies that will protect our right to do so in the future. At the moment, this is happening all over the world (but I have not seen much about a Nepali debate taking place), where legislation is either being proposed by liberals - to protect internet rights (access, privacy, etc.), or conservatives - who are proposing tighter controls over the internet, in the name of national security and cyber terrorism.

So the fight is on, in a sense, for the future impact that youth can possibly make on the political landscape – we are deciding today about how much space to give our future generations to play in politically when online, even if today they are just playing Mafia Wars and twittering about designer jeans.

Personally, I don’t see this “immature” activity a real problem, as sooner or later all the Cityvilles will be completed and then abandoned, the farms of Farmville will be maxed out and forgotten, and all the Mafia War guys will be sleeping with the fishes. Then these online gamers will turn to more grown-up games, like solving the country’s problems and ultimately saving the planet (well, one can hope).

But, if there are no Internet-rights initiatives in Nepali constitutional writing now, then that absence will lead to a policy vacuum. And we all know what that means: those in charge of the vacuum tube will eventually control everyone stuck within it. And if our online rights are not preserved, then we might as well have wasted all the time playing Angry Birds, as the Pigs will have won the day.
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postheadericon KUIRE KO KURA: On Being Away From Home...

It’s hard to write about Nepal today, being thousands of miles away and holed up in a University dorm room somewhere outside of Bangkok. Writing anything meaningful about living in Nepal, when I am away from Nepal, just dribbles out like a homesick sobbing.

For example, I miss Nepali dogs - real dogs. My dog, and the other dogs that live vicariously on the love bestowed from the denizens of Dhobighat, make my heart ache when I can’t hear them yowling all night long. The dogs here in Thailand are not near as exciting, nor full of spit and vinegar. They are virtually silent. Walking by a street dog in Thailand is like walking past a corpse... they just lie there as if dead, fat and full on whatever they’ve managed to scavenge for dinner.

And perhaps it is the dinner that makes Thai dogs so complacent and unexcited about life – plain white rice bores me to tears as well. The rice here tastes flat without the common accouterments of dhal, achar and a nice curry. But don’t get me wrong, some Thai food is wonderful: the fresh seafood and fish, the peanut pad thai, and those cute little sandwiches with the crusts all cut off are certainly grand. But the plates of plain white rice, in minute quantities, are a bit standoffish and totally unsatisfying.

And most food served here in Thailand is in mini-format, and I’ve discovered why - Thais eat non-stop all day and night! If the quantities were any larger, they would all look like fat Americans - instead of the slender trim beauties that they mostly are. I say mostly, as the Thais that I see hanging out at any one of the millions of McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Pizza Huts, do appear to be gaining weight on the average American, if you know what I mean.

But maybe the cause of youth weight gain is not solely due to the fast food chains that are sprouting up like young stalks of summer bamboo, but instead is caused by the love that Thais have with white bread. This soft mushy “milk” bread covers everything in the food stalls, and I gotta say, I don’t mind a bit. There are tuna muffins, sausage rolls, and a plethora of other tiny buns stuffed with who-knows-what, all for 10 rupees or less... which adds up for me, ‘cause I have to have a half-dozen or more to make myself a mini-meal.

I asked the Ama running one food stall (where the menu postings were written in halfway decent English) what was the favorite food sold at her stand, as there was such a wide variety piled onto the oversized cart. She replied by showing me a photo of her and family on a river cruise in NYC, with the World Trade twin towers still standing in the background. The photo was dated 7/12/1990, and she excitedly pointed to the towers saying New York New York over and over.

I found out only by observation that the big seller at this food stall was chilling in a large Styrofoam cooler containing a huge block of ice and hundreds of tiny plastic bottles. It was plain yogurt - white, thick, cream and delicious - served with a tiny straw. I bought four.

But Ama told me that was not enough for lunch, so she pulled a small tin from another cooler nearby that she said contained “Le Zah Ya.” Lasagna? Nodding, she yelled back “Le Zah Ya!”

Okay, give me two of those as well. That, and a bag of homemade fried banana chips and I was good to go. It’s a bit hot here at the moment, so I headed back to my classroom with lunch, where I knew it would be chilly cold with at least two huge air cons blasting away. But before I could get there, I was struck by another food cart piled high with fresh fruit, slowly melting away huge blocks of ice. I just had to have some of that luscious pineapple and watermelon...

Perhaps it’s the Nepali lack of refrigeration and ice that makes me homesick when anything opulent is thrown in my face while abroad, to include the unlimited spray from a showerhead. This full on, all day public utilities heaven is what makes me pine for the chaos of a poorer Kathmandu, where everything is hot, dirty, crowded, crazy – and limited to an arbitrary schedule.

I know, that sounds nuts - but ke garne?
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postheadericon KUIRE KO KURA: On Remembering Nepal

Last time I wrote a bit about the America that I remembered from a decade or more ago, and Republica reader Kedar Ghimire was kind enough to leave this comment online:

“Would be nice to hear a similar account of Nepal from your point of view... how has it changed, certainly was cleaner I guess...cheers!”

So here is a bit about the change that I’ve seen in the last 10 years or so as an expat living deep within our not-so-fair Valley...

Has anything really changed?

When I first arrived in Nepal, I felt that I had been here before; it was just like the re-occurring dream I had when I was a teen, when I fell to sleep to find that I lived in a valley of crystal beings who lived in crystal towers, where the valley had once been filled with water as clear as diamonds. But about midway thru this heavenly vision of this perfect dream world, something went terribly wrong with everything, and I was soon caught in what seemed to be a nightmarish apocalyptic hell filled with snakes and dragons and yelping wolves.

I remembered that dream as soon as stepped out of the taxi and first walked into Thamel. Only later did I hear of the legend where Shiva splits a lake in two and forms the valley in which we all thrive today. The apocalyptic hell from my teen dream turned out to simply be: toilets with no paper, crap all over the street, and temples filled with all sorts of wondrous and strange animal deities... and the wolves... they were just mutts in need of a home and a decent meal.

I’m convinced now that this teen dream was instead a vision, and that karma or “ka” is what brought me to the Valley. After all, I found that I could not get lost here, no matter how hard I tried or how far I strayed into Kalimati, I could always find my hostel home in Boudha. In addition, I also felt like I had been transported back 20 years or so to my boytown home of Poughkeepsie NY, as faithful readers of this column will recall.

Poughkeepsie NY was 50’s America with mom&pop shops that closed one day a week in respect for the gods. It was an infrastructure in the making yet decaying, with rolling blackouts and limited public services run by a small government trying to do the best they could with what little they had. It was a place where you could get an umbrella repaired and your shoes shined right on the street.

It was a time when disputes were settled by shouting family members in the streets instead of in the hallowed halls of justice filled with ambulance-chasing lawyers with shark-like teeth that were fed $200 per hour to fight a case. It was a place where nothing was perfect, but everyone wanted to be. It was just like Kathmandu in 1991.

So has anything really changed?

Not much that I can report. Different rulers, different billboards, more SUVs and more malls and more trash in the streets, but basically life goes on as it did a decade ago: slowly. Prices are higher and there are more things to buy in the shops, but I suspect some have less money to spare. And the ones that do - flaunt it more. Despite new found democracy, the bandha is still with us and the lights of the city are not. And more or less, we still have less water in our tanks, less petro at our pumps, and the same lazy-faire attitude embodied by ke garne.

So has anything really changed?

I have. I came here to learn how to live more with less, and found that to be very easy to do in Kathmandu – what choice does one have? I came here to find nirvana with Buddha in the garden...still looking for him however. I came here wanting to be happy, and that I am. Perhaps that is Buddha in the garden. I came here searching, only to realize how irrelevant the search really was. In short, I came back home to the place that I had started from. And for that I am forever thankful.
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postheadericon TECH TALK: When Good Things Go Evil...

Faithful followers of this column will remember that last time I touched glowingly on various aspects of “cloud computing,” and I had planned to follow that up with a review on Google’s much improved Blogger tool for aspiring web publishers. But then it happened...

I woke up this morning looking forward to reading my virtual paper and sipping on my really good cup of joe, only to find this message when I tried to log into my Google portal at www.google.com/ig: “Account has been disabled.”

Huh?

Now I have had this account for the past 6 or 7 years, ever since Google handed out invites to Gmail Beta, so you can imagine my shock – and later outrage.

“In most cases, accounts are disabled because of a perceived violation of either the Google Terms of Service or product-specific Terms of Service.”

I can’t possibly imagine what I could have done wrong, even though I have not read the hundreds of pages that make up the terms of services, but I suspect it might have something to do with my new blog created over the weekend. Could Google have perceived some kind of copyright infringement – of my own work – as that was all I had blogged?

But perhaps the account was hacked, or perhaps I am a schizophrenic bi-polar sleep walker whose other side is one of a pornographer or a mafia kingpin, and perhaps I did violate the terms while sleep typing, I dunno, but the result is no more email address, no more Google documents, no more Google blog, no more Picaso photos, no more membership in Google groups, no more Google friend connects, and no more access to Google analytics for the websites that I maintain.

So a big should out to all: Google really can “terminate your account at any time, for any reason, with or without notice,” and will apparently do so without showing any mercy whatsoever.

But being the big backup blowhard that I pretend to be here, I do have backups of just about everything mentioned above, all except the Google blog that I had intended on writing about today. I have other Gmail accounts and the same photos (pretty much) on Flickr, and so many other group memberships on other services, that losing a few on Google won’t hurt anyone one bit. All my emails are safely stored on my home computers, and synchronized with another service - MobileMe from Apple – that I highly recommend (until they too cut me off for something done while sleep walking).

But a big lesson learned today: Never put all your virtual eggs in one Google basket, i.e. don’t tie all your own cloud activities to a single Google account. In a flash, it could all be toast.

So is Google really evil then? (That question ran through my mind for the rest of the day.) Many techies tend to say “heck yes” (or something expletively stronger). Google is the devil incarnate, and has been for some time they cry! But up until this morning, I had no real reason to agree.

However, let’s think about Google for a moment: Google is a multi-billion dollar empire with hundreds of millions of user’s per day, all supplying intimate details about their lives and loves via a simple search box. Like Facebook, Google is determining who you are by what you do while using Google services (just as Facebook does) and in addition, they are out photographing our houses and businesses in 360 degrees and also geo-mapping the heck out of our collective movements, and in many cases, our individual movements as well.

And why are they doing all of this again? So our data can be sold to other billion dollar empires that all want to market us to death with 3D TVs, SUVs, and enough consumer soap to drown anyone in a single lifetime. And that’s the benign explanation. The nefarious explanation requires you to put on your tin hat.

And in exchange, we get all the wonderful free services that Google provides, uncoupling us forever from the arduous ownership of encyclopedias, phonebooks, and a sharp letter opener.

But taking these services for granted and considering them part of our human rights is a fallacy in the making, as revolutionaries around the world have recently found out. One of the first services to go in Libya was Google’s YouTube, followed by Twitter and Facebook of course. What is given out so freely can be taken away swiftly; another lesson learned on the march to global democracy.

But putting revolutions aside, all I really wanted to write about was how wonderfully easy blogs are to create in Google’s improved Blogger tool, but all I can actually report is how easy they are to lose – forever. Even with the “export blog” and “export template” feature that allows you to hypothetically back up your blog, if Google pulls your plug, you are looking down a very long road in recovering what you once published.

Personally, I’m switching to WordPress, in hopes that the little guys in the blogging world will treat us little boys and girls with a heck of a lot more respect.


NOTE: Just a few days after this article appeared in the Republica, my blogger account was restored just as mysteriously as it was taken down.
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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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