The content of this blog does not reflect the positions of the Peace Corps and is solely the responsibility of the author.

In Tanzania China. With Coffee.

I win Peace Corps!  I have all the forms signed and the health care explained to me, and tonight, I board a plane to China!  More blogging might happen here.  Or not, depends somewhat on the Great Firewall situation.  I've got a month in China and after that, I'm returning to the states.   More blogging might happen, or not, but if so at a different address.  I'll let you know.

Love to you all, darlings.  Did I mention I win Peace Corps??

Books I Have Read During my Peace Corps Service

Warning: navel-gazing.
  1. Clive Barker, Everville
  2. C. J. Cherryh, The Faded Sun 
  3. Ernest Newman, The Wagner Operas
  4. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
  5. C.J. Cherryh, Cloud's Rider
  6. Caroline Stevermer, Magic Below Stairs
  7. Timothy Zahn, The Icarus Hunt
  8. Neal Stephonson, Snow Crash
  9. Isaac Asimov, 9 Tomorrows
  10. J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
  11. Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle
  12. Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club
  13. Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays
  14. Neil Gaiman, Sandman, the Complete series
  15. Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  16. Sir Walter Scot, The Talisman
  17. Voltaire, Candide and other Stories
  18. George R. R. Martin, Dances with Dragons
  19. Mark Twain, Pudd'n Head Wilson
  20. J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
  21. Terry Pratchet, Pyramids
  22. Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light and Darkness
  23. Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep
  24. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  25. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
  26. Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
  27. Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
  28. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  29. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
  30. Robert V.S. Redick, The Red Wolf Conspiracy
  31. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
  32. Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things
  33. Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
  34. Kurt Vonnegut, Long Walk to Forever
  35. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot
  36. Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World
  37. David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day
  38. Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect
  39. Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard
  40. Roger Zelazny, Doorways in the Sand
  41. David Sedaris, When you are Engulfed in Flame
  42. Aristophanes, Lysistrata
  43. Noam Chomsky, The Noam Chomsky Reader
  44. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States
  45. Forgotten Realms Anthology, Realms of the Deep
  46. Roald Dahl, Esio Trot
  47. Roger Zelazny, A Night in the Lonesome October
  48. Mary Roach, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
  49. Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  50. Barbara Hambly, The Silent Tower
  51. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
  52. Adam Gopnik, ed., The Best American Essays 2008
  53. Barbara Hambly, The Silicon Mage
  54. Barbara Hambly, Dog Wizard
  55. R.A. Lafferty, Annals of Klepsis
  56. Barbara Hambly, Those who Hunt the Night
  57. Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
  58. Garth Nix, Sabriel
  59. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
  60. Terry Pratchet, The Thief of Time
  61.  Joseph Heller, Catch-22
  62. Gail Carriger, Soulless
  63. Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities
  64. Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
  65. Kurt Vonnegut, Deadeye Dick
  66. William Golding, Lord of the Flies
  67. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
  68. Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun
  69. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground
  70. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  71. John Steinbeck, East of Eden
  72. Kathryn Stockett, The Help
  73. Laura Simms, ed. A Key to the Heart
  74. Richard Feynman, Six Not so Easy Pieces
  75. Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook
  76. Terry Pratchett, Jingo
  77. H.P. Lovecraft, The Complete H. P. Lovecraft Reader
  78. Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian
  79. China Mieville, The Scar
  80. Mary Roach, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

In Which I am Subversive

One more thing about my exams.

I was having a problem with people being really late to my classes this semester, so I started having a quick (<5min) talk about someone important in computing history at the end of every lecture and I told them that they would be quizzed on this material if I decided a sufficient number of students were late and latecomers would not have any chance to make up the lost points.  I stole the idea from my predecessor, who used vocabulary words.  I only had to have one pop quiz.  It worked like a charm, the students were mostly on time after that.  The fabulous T.J. my predecessor is a very smart man.

One of the people I mentioned was Alan Turing (how could I not?) and because it's something I think needs to be said and follows naturally, I gave my little speech about how we shouldn't discriminate against anyone because we never know what people might do for us.  In his short life, Turing gave us computing, who knows what he might have done in his old age?  This is a somewhat disingenuous argument, since really, we shouldn't discriminate because all people have rights, not because we are selfish, but pragmatism is always an easier sell than idealism.

The last question on my exams is always a throw away, "what is the most important or valuable thing that you learned in this class?" One of the responses this time began "The most important thing I learned was that we shouldn't discriminate against people, because as we have seen, Alan Turing..."

I'm really proud of that, darlings.  This is a violently homophobic society, and I did something to fight that.

In Which I am Yet Again a Cartoon Drawing

This is exam week.  I am leaving for Dar Friday.  My school originally told me not to worry about my exam, just turn it in along with a rubric and someone else would do it.  Last Friday, they changed their minds and moved my exam to Monday and expect me to have all or most of the exams marked before I leave.

Someday, and that day may never come, I will be in a land where people make schedules and stick to them. It's not that I mind taking care of my own exams--that being, after all, my job--but I do mind things happening without much warning.  Also, I have a cold, so I am cranky.  I am treating it entirely with expired, off-brand sudafed because that's what I have. If I get a meth addiction from this, I expect the federal government to pay for my rehab. 

Fortunately, I did make this exam short and rather easy.  At least, it's easy for me to grade, it doesn't seem to have been that easy for the students. The point to all of this, however, is that one of the questions asked the students to state the importance of a storyboard and draw one or two panels of an example storyboard.  One of them was the following:


Aww.  Also, in contrast to my previous cameo appearance in a storyboard, I am pictured in culturally appropriate clothing. 

In Which I Peruse the Books at the Catholic Center

The Catholic center is a guest house in Mbeya at which most volunteers stay if they are in town.  I spent the night there this past weekend for a going away event with the other volunteers.  Outside the main office is a locked glass case containing books and crucifixes for sale.  Not, alas, any of the crucifixes that have blinky red LEDs in them, which I have seen in country and really kind of want.  Because I have no taste and I like blinky lights.  Anyway, the titles for sale included Mixed Marriage (and based on the cover picture, they do indeed mean interracial marriage) and Nilinunua UKIMWI kwenye Baa [I Bought HIV/AIDS at the Bar.]

I had no idea that miscegenation was actually still a topic, though I suppose I should have guessed based on one of the horribly written low-production value Tanzanian films I've seen on a bus, which revolves around a man having an affair with a woman who turned out to have an affair with a white foreigner (which was discovered because the newborn was white, and apparently the filmmakers are unaware that black babies are often born very light-skinned) and this woman is scorned and stigmatized, though the cheating husband is still totally cool with everyone.  He also threatens to beat all the women in his life, but that's just manly and without which women wouldn't respect him.  Or something.  

As far as buying HIV/AIDS goes, part of the stigma behind the disease is that supposedly it only comes from sex workers, who are also supposedly the only women who ever have condoms (see the flaw in this reasoning?).  Way to discuss the topic in a fact-based and non-sensationalist way.

In Which I am Feted to a Fare Thee Well.

Friday was tiring, which was a little ridiculous since the only thing I actually had to do was be a guest of honor.  Seriously, I made a speech and everything.  My department gave me a farewell luncheon, with important people like the deputy principal and registrar in attendance.  Speeches were made.  I was presented with a slightly misspelled certificate--which I love--saying that I saved the university as a Peace Corps volunteer.  They also bought me presents, including some of the beaded Masai sandals.  It was really sweet.  During his speech, the deputy principal told me that several of my students had come by his office requesting that I be ordered to stay.  That makes me feel really good, but at the same time, how tyrannical of the dear children.   

Do you have a signed certificate saying you saved a university? 

My new shoes.

Only a little over a week until I will have won Peace Corps.  Can I manage to die in a bus accident/electrical fire between now and then?  Stay tuned.

A Farewell to Shoes

The landing outside my apartment door is, in the words of my fabulous predecessor TJ, where old shoes go to die.  There is always a small pile of shoes outside the door.  They are not my shoes.  Sometimes pairs appear, sometimes they disappear.  Currently, there is one battered pair of white women's shoes. These particular dead shoes have been present since before I moved in, and I am confident they will still be there after I leave.

In Which I am Not A Villain of Gaming

I never realized until recently that I wanted to make a cameo appearance as a PC game villain.  For their last project, I made my multimedia class design a game and implement one part of it.   This was also something of an exercise in trying to get them to think about what they need and tailor what they do accordingly, since a game design document isn't something you can just blindly follow steps to create.  Of course, some of them still tried, by downloading templates off the internet and not really editing them, and then we had to have a little discussion about plagiarism.  Oh well.  Some of them did put a lot of work and thought into the assignment.  My personal favorite game showed a student in a classroom, taking a test.  The object of the game is to cheat at least 30% of the time without the teacher (who wanders around the classroom randomly, and spins around at intervals) seeing. The students who created this game took pains to assure me that I was not the teacher in the game, and the sprite was nothing like me (which it wasn't). I am really disappointed.  That may have been my only opportunity to villain it up virtually.  

In Which I Hide in my House

Warning: political.

A lot of people here pay more attention to U.S. news than I do, which means I often get questions about stuff which I am unaware happened.  Or about stuff that I just don't care that much about, e.g. Obama's visit.  Today, I am dreading questions about the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.  A bunch of people who know more about the legal system than I do have said that based on the investigation, the law, and the actions of the prosecution, the jury didn't really have grounds to convict.  I defer to their expertise, but that's not going to make explaining this better.

A lot of my students want to study in the states.  A lot of my students are sweet and earnest.  The one I think would most benefit from foreign study runs everywhere and always sits in the front, types frantically whenever I say anything he can test out for himself, and has a big grin when his programs work.   He is also the driving force behind the optional Python class I taught this semester.  The point is, I don't want to tell him, or any of my students, or my colleagues, or even the person I don't actually know who called me early this morning to ask if he could come to my home and have me fix his modem (umm, no?) that yes, in the U.S. it is likely that they will be profiled as poor, under-educated, and/or (violently) criminal based on their skin, and in some places it is defensibly legal for them to be followed around and shot by angry white people with guns.

A friend who is braver than I is doing some Kiswahili cramming to be able to explain the verdict to his students today.  Other volunteers may still be claiming that racism is not a problem in the U.S., because some people do that.  Me, I am hiding in my house.

A Toast to the Bar at the Banking Town

Come to the bar at the banking town
With your hair unwashed and your feet dark brown.
Drink. Till your shames and your failures die down,
Stay at the bar in your banking town.

Terrible liquor we'll serve you today
That project you're doing? Won't work anyway.
Children and goats ensure all things decay.
Stay here and drink because here you're okay.

Photographing Goodbye

I  had my last class with my multimedia group today.  Next week is optional, they can show up if they have questions, and if not, not.  Many of them brought their cameras and wanted pictures with me after class for kumbukumbu (memory).  I asked for and received the pictures through my email.

Eldritch Piecharts and Frustrations

Recently, I discovered that the latest and greatest Arduino board has had the SPI pins remapped and is no longer backwards compatible with most shields.  I may have to renounce my undying love for Arduino over this.  On the other hand, they send stickers with their boards.  I like stickers.  Anyway, I decided to do a little hardware hacking and took the board and a soldering iron to a friend because my hands aren't steady enough for precision work.  Unfortunately, my friend does not have power.  We discovered that soldering irons cannot be powered off a solar battery.  Sticking the soldering iron into a charcoal jiko (stove) doesn't work either.  I suppose I do have the satisfaction of saying as long as my problems with electronic things are  incomprehensible to most people, my education is still working.  

The soldering iron will get hot enough to melt the solder,
but it gets too cool the second it is removed from the
immediate vicinity of the hot coals. 

I dealt with my frustration by making a piechart. With vanilla custard, made with cornstarch rather than custard powder, so it came out well.  It shows the number of times that various Elder Things are mentioned across 68 Lovecraft stories.   Click to embiggen such that the legend will become legible.  Note that Shub-Niggurath never appears not anteceded by an exclamation point, because She's all special that way.

I am still bad at pie crusts.  

Eldritch Pies: The Necronomicon

Possibly only version 1.0 or some such, since we were hindered by a lack of food coloring.  Also, I envision the Necronomicon as being more of a pop-up book with tentacles coming out.

If your food doesn't scream at you, you are probably
doing it right.

Caturday Post: Blankets

I shipped a lot of things back to the states recently, among them, a Masai shuka (blanket) for my kitties to sit upon.  They like to sit upon things.  They are good at it.

Photos courtesy of my sister.

Even More Evidence Supporting my Hypothesis that I will Die in an Electrical Fire in this Country

A few weeks ago, the Soviet-style apartment block painted pink caught fire.  Just one apartment, and due to an electrical short.   In an impressive display of fast thinking, the university responded by shutting off the power.  No one was hurt, and by the time the firetruck showed up and the firemen stood around in their suits (not firesuits, not even the down jackets that motorcycle drivers wear in place of protective gear, just suits) everything was under control.  Let's focus on the positive here.  Mbeya actually has a firetruck, which will show up eventually if something is on fire.

See the blackened ceiling on the balcony?

A few days ago, I heard a crackling out the window, looked out, and noticed the garbage pit fire (trash is burned here, because what else do you do with?) had spread into a vast cloud with one old man poking at the edges with a hoe.  It was eventually brought under control, but left a burned swath in the field around the garbage pit.

garbage pit with swath of extra burning.
Whenever I get too worried, I tell myself that I will die in a bus accident instead, and when I'm on a bus I assure myself that I can only die in a fire.  It's a remarkably fulfilling system.

The Incredible Thinking Machines

I finished my final multimedia class unit of the semester, on games and game design, with a brief overview of AI.  After discussing Turing's Polite Convention, I asked my students if they believed that computers could think.  The confident response, with which the whole class claimed to agree was, "yes, computers can think because they have brains."

Since in the secondary schools, students in ICT classes are forced to memorize that the CPU is the brain of the computer, this isn't too surprising, though like many things secondary school students are forced to memorize in ICT classes, it's not really accurate.  It might be accurate in a broad metaphorical sense, but broad metaphors are not helpful in this case.  Computers do not have lumps of grayish organic matter inside them.  That would be gross.  Nor do computers have a simulation of a human brain.  That is currently impossible.

So I spent a while asking my students questions about what it means to think, which confused them, but they did bring up remembering and making decisions. So I talked about the differences between human memory and computer memory, and then we talked about how we  humans make simple decisions, e.g., what clothes to wear in the morning, and what facts (cold, dirtiness) we might use to make decisions, and the cultural factors that they don't necessary consider when making decisions (I told them that American university students might show up to class in their sleeping clothes.  My students were shocked.).

Since Tanzanian children play a game completely equivalent to Tic-Tac-Toe (the proof is left to the reader), I drew a board and had the students tell me which opening move they would make if they wanted to win, and which move the next player makes to try to win and so on.  Then I asked how they decided a move would help them win and how a computer could decided.   I actually talked them through the minimax algorithm for solving it, and told them that I could assure them they were not doing that in their brains when I asked them to try to win.
A Tanzanian Tic-Tac-Toe board.  Stones may be placed at
line intersections.  The object is still 3 in a row.   

Yes, I know I'm being ethnocentric calling it Tic-Tac-Toe, and I'm sorry, but the students all said they didn't know of a name for this, but most of them had played it as children, so I'm calling it TZ Tic-Tac-Toe because it is grammatically convenient for stuff to have names.

I always get this feeling that students never believe me when I contradict something they've been memorizing and receiving rewards for regurgitating, but I think the majority of the class actually thought a little about what it means to make decisions, and how complicated it can get, and that's all I was really trying to get across.  Well, that and don't just repeat stuff to me without thinking about it.  Arguably a lot of computer science is describing things in a very precise and unambiguous way.