28 April 2011


Two posts in one day? Wow.

Reason 2 of Ten Reasons for Choosing A Simple Lifestyle is
As an act of SELF DEFENSE against the mind and body polluting effects of over-consumption.
Most of us consume a lot, and only part of that consumption really enhances daily life. How do we focus on life-enhancers and let go of the physical and mental health pollutants? I can definitely remember being told to go outside and play instead of staying indoors on the computer or other consumer electronic device. Thanks, Mom. There is so much to see and do without buying more stuff and using more fossil fuels. I think an appropriate level of consumption is possible -- especially since there are those products that really do offer benefits -- but we need to stay in control of the situation. Remember that the things we do and what we buy are meant to enhance life, not prevent us from engaging in it.
Easter Weekend was fun; it is a four day holiday in Kenya. Friday I went to an American-style sports bar with another volunteer. We watched cricket and had a pleasant conversation. Then we went to see Ben and others in Westlands. Kathryn and Michael were there. Saturday morning all YAVs met with Phyllis for breakfast and discussed some church-related issues (e.g. big church syndrome). I also learned a new card game called Euchar (spelling? sounds like YOOK-err, like first two syllables of eucharist). Sunday we had dinner at Phyllis's and then second-dinner at another friend's house. Monday I read the first half of Dead Aid (see previous post) and hung out with B&G.

Next Monday is Labor Day in Kenya -- no work. Then Saturday May 7 my parents arrive for their visit: a few days in Nairobi and few days on safari in Amboseli. Yay

Dead Aid

Dambisa Moyo's book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is Another Way for Africa challenges the accepted dogma that aid is an effective weapon against poverty. Moyo rightly differentiates between emergency aid, charity aid, and systematic aid. Her aim in the book is to demonstrate the downfalls of systematic aid, the type of aid given to governments by other governments or international financial institutions like the World Bank.

Moyo argues that systematic aid

  • feeds corruption
  • encourages civil war
  • reduces savings and investment
  • causes inflation
  • chokes exports
  • creates dependency
Her solution is to reduce the flow of systematic aid to countries over a few years and to replace the cash flow by increasing

  • access to capital markets (nations raise funds through issue of bonds)
    • Moyo recognizes the difficulty of non-credit-worthy nations issuing bonds, but suggests that a new structures, such as pooled risk and bond underwriters, can lower barriers 
  • foreign direct investment
    • FDI is what happens when US and China fund projects abroad - like road construction in Kenya - that serve the interests of both host and investor
    • China is a leader in this type of project in Africa. For example, the Chinese constructed a railroad to connect a land-locked Zambia to a port in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (the Zamtan), reducing Zambian dependence on South African railways and opening a new market for trade. 
  • trade
  • microfinance and other financial services for the poor
    • M-pesa in Kenya allows people to transfer large sums of money via cellphones. Since the vast majority of people do not have access to banks, this helps people stay in control of their money.  
  • monetising assets for to bolster personal savings and enable lending
  • remittances
    • When ex-patriots send money back to their families, did you know governments take a cut? Moyo suggests lowering the remittance tax.
The book concludes with an appropriate African proverb:
The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

25 April 2011

Reason 1: FAITH

Hey I'm feeling posty. The first reason for choosing a simple lifestyle (according to Lissner, see previous post) is
As an act of FAITH performed for the sake of personal integrity and as an expression of personal commitment to a more equitable distribution of the earth's resources.
For me an act of faith is something you do based on a belief. The beliefs can be whatever, your faith can take many forms, but crucially one must act. I'd prefer Lissner to write ACT of faith. 'Performed for the sake of' connect this act of faith with our personal integrity in the way that a firefighter enters a burning building for the sake of those inside. To rescue our personal integrity, we choose a simple lifestyle. Fair enough.

We may also choose a simple lifestyle as an expression of personal commitment. Commitment to what? We commit to a more equitable distribution of the earth's resources. Good luck to us finding a mechanism to achieve this! I don't know how we accomplish equitable distribution, or what that really means, but I think we can safely start by balancing relationships in our daily interactions with people. Do balanced relationships provide the opportunity for more balanced resources? Perhaps.

20 April 2011

Mathematics and Hospitality

So I thought I might talk about those ten reasons to choose a simple lifestyle (see previous post). But I may just do so randomly and without regularity. What is currently more interesting...

I was leaning back in my chair and started thinking about my reading course on mathematical beauty that I took in college. One major philosophical discussion concerns the true origins of mathematics.
Is mathematics invented by humans, or does mathematics pre-exist in nature?
This is not a trivial exercise; I believe that a deep exploration of this question is important, especially for people who work with numbers. What do you think? How might this question apply to your life? (If you need help, replace 'mathematics' with 'logic'. The discussion is analogous. You can answer by leaving a comment - c'mon people!) I'll start by leaving my opinion as a comment.

I did not intend my YAV blog to become a math blog. But this is what I think about. Take a number.

Life goes on in Nairobi. Working at Across is still great; improving the website and other stuff slowly by slowly. Matatus are still frustrating sometimes. I am searching for where to live in Seattle when I move there for school in September. Could do with some more variety and taste in my food, but hey, I'm getting enough to eat. Apparently this weekend is Easter and the YAVs are having dinner at our coordinator's house. Looking forward to that, and playing cards with Ben Snipes and others. Ben and I have agreed to cut our hair this weekend.

I was walking home Monday when a guy pointed toward the national park (there is a national park/zoo in Nairobi). His name is Shadrack. We viewed the buffalo briefly before walking on together. Within 100 meters he had invited me to him home in Kajiado (Kenya) where he would arrange a tour for me. We also discussed weather in the US, how most places there are both hotter and colder than Nairobi which is temperate year round, and how one would probably need two coats living in Greenland. 3 John talks about being welcoming and hospitable. How do we decide when an offer of hospitality is not an invitation to danger, and how do we overcome the fear of offending someone with our openness? I think Shadrack knows the answer. But as an ex-pat in Nairobi I feel vulnerable to others who would take advantage of me, so I had to deflect Shadrack's serious invitation to his home, and I'm sorry about that.

-Contemplative in Kenya

05 April 2011

Ten reasons for choosing a simple lifestyle

I would like to thank the YAV office for all the support they offer us volunteers before, during, and after our year of service. One of the small -- but great! -- things they provide is a booklet entitled "A Little Collection of Readings and Reflections." I have read through it a few times, once straight through, once from back to front, but usually I just pick a random page and go from there.

One entry I keep coming back to is a list called "Ten reasons for choosing a simple lifestyle" by Jorgen Lissner of UNDP, Ethiopia. As I grant you could surmise, the list shares ten strong, concise statements in defense of a simple lifestyle. Eventually I will go through the list, but as Part One of this series, I want to discuss the foundation of the topic and start to discern what it is we are talking about.

So, here we go: Ten reasons for choosing a simple lifestyle.

What strikes me about the title is one word: choosing. For so many people around the world, there is no choice, no option at all when it comes to their lifestyle. Constrained by economic realities, these people do not have the opportunity to live differently. However, for those from more affluent backgrounds, there exists a choice not present elsewhere. So we need to recognize that the ability to choose our lifestyle is a privilege, and it is an opportunity to demonstrate our values in very real ways.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the US budget as a moral document, and this applies to personal budgets also. How we spend our money demonstrates our values more clearly than our rhetoric and resolutions. In the same way, our lifestyle choices are an expression of our morality -- how we live shows how we value life!

To choose a simple lifestyle is to accept a call to action. A simple lifestyle is not a bumper sticker or a call to idleness. It is an active engagement in what you define to be most important in human life. This is different for everybody, but for me I might say it is healthy relationships with myself, with others, with the environment, and with God.

So when we ask, "What is a simple lifestyle?" I think a good way to start is by listing single words or phrases that fit into what we are talking about. A short list to start to start us off:

A simple lifestyle is
  • Sustainable
  • Other-affirming
  • Practical
  • Healthy
  • Uplifting
  • Please add you own... 

04 April 2011

Knight's Path algorithm, pt. 2

Last post I promised you a keyword: optimize.

What is the optimal size board for the random knight's path algorithm (see previous post)? Turns out this question does not have a very interesting results. The 3x3 board is the most efficient of the non-trivial cases, and efficiency decreases as the board expands. Moving on... 

My original interest was in random movements, but I wasn't done there. I wanted longer path lengths and so needed to let the algorithm make a few decisions along the way.  

Thus, instead of allowing completely random moves, we can forbid jumping to one's death. That is, if there is more than one legal move to make, we forbid jumping to a dead-end square. This slight modification improves performance on the 8x8 board; the average path length increases about 25%. 

I changed the algorithm again to pick the move with the fewest next-jump options (while still forbidding death jumps). Essentially, the algorithm looks around to see where the knight can jump, then counts how many next-jump options there are from each of those positions, and picks the one with the fewest. In this way, the algorithm intentionally visits isolated squares when it has the chance. With this modification, the algorithm produces a complete path (path length = 64) over 98% of the time with closed paths comprising 14% of complete paths. (A closed path is a complete path where the final position is within one jump of the starting position, meaning the circuit can be closed.) Here is a demonstration of one such complete, closed path:

Notice that any position on the board could be the starting position since the path loops around. Also, complete, closed paths often display rather beautiful patterns that could, you know, inspire somebody.

I purposely avoided reading the literature on the problem before working on it; achieving one’s own results is worthwhile in recreational mathematics. However, a quick search shows that H.C. von Warnsdorff proposed the same automated process -- picking the move with the fewest next-jump options -- in 1823. (He was not using a computer.)

Read more about knight's paths on Wolfram MathWorld, one of my favorite websites.