Uganda Day 5: 10 Surprising Issues Building Soccer Fields in Palabek Refugee Camp

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This post is part 5 of a daily series I am writing while in Uganda with FUNDaFIELD.org. I don’t talk about it much, but FUNDaFIELD is a 501(c)(3) I have been deeply involved in since age 13 and while I am not always able to dedicate the time I should, it is very important to me. While I have been to Uganda (and other FUNDaFIELD regions) many many times, every FUNDaFIELD trip is an adventure, so I thought it would be fun to document certain aspects of the experience. While I do work for FUNDaFIELD, I am writing this as a personal blog so my words should not be taken as organizational gospel. FUNDaFIELD is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization utilizing the therapeutic power of sports to support the rehabilitation and recovery process in post-conflict and post-trauma regions around the world. We work with local communities to provide sports fields(generally soccer and netball), sports equipment, and to host sports tournaments.

I’ve talked a lot in the last four days about the situation we are working in and the rationale for actually doing that work. I have not actually talked about the work itself. While we have a variety of focus areas, the biggest by far is to work with communities/schools in order to build sustainable community sports facilities. We talk about soccer pitches but also usually build netball courts and occasionally volleyball courts in the same space.

“Oh! You guys built those GOOOOD pitches! I know FUNDaFIELD” -Assistant commander of Palabek

In Palabek refugee camp, we have basically completed two projects and I wanted to share how much of an accomplishment that really is. Unlike many previous projects, I have been much less involved in these fields on the Uganda side, so most of this info is coming from my mom, Lisa, who along with a small team has overseen the full execution of these projects. This is basically a full-time job in another country and she has been an absolute superstar. Go mom! 

“It’s that scary mzungu again!”

10 Surprising Issues Building Two Soccer Pitches in Palabek Refugee Camp

These things are not all limited to Palabek, they are constant and a reality of this type of work. APOLOGIES BUZZFEED FOR STEALING YO FORMAT

1. “I am stuck in a manure pit for the night.”

Clay soil is not good for growing grass. For the grass to take hold, we need to add fertilizer. In many places, the best form of fertilizer is some nice cow dung. So naturally, we sent one of our team members with a big truck to a manure pit a few hours away.

Mmm mud pie

The idea was that him and eight other guys from the local community would put on boots, and shovel enough dung to fill the truck. Unfortunately though, the driver backed a bit too far into the manure pit, and the big truck got stuck in the muck. Bad luck. The sun was setting and the truck was done moving for the night. This meant that our guy had to stay with the truck while the local men went home. AKA spending a full night in the middle of nowhere, in a lake of cow poo with all of the bugs, noises, and lovely odors that brings.

“I’m tired leave me alone.”

The next day the truck was pulled out and the grass sure appreciates our efforts!

2. “The water guys just ‘boomeranged’.”

During our initial construction phase, the camp was in what the UN refers to as an “emergency state.” Thousands of refugees were pouring in and little infrastructure had been built to sustain them. This meant that unlike today, we had no tap (water from a tank that flows down into public taps), and no borehole (basically a well that you can manually pump water out with above ground). The water that was in the camp was strictly for refugee survival and could not even be used for bathing (should be obvious but worth noting we never use water that is needed for drinking or bathing).

Our solution was to find a massive water truck on the side of the road, two hours outside of camp (close to the bigger towns where we sleep at night). The truck was grounded because of a flat tire and agreed to help us on the condition that we fix their tire. We agreed and they committed to watering the field twice in a day. We drove with them to a creek, watched as they hooked up a generator to the truck and took 52 minutes to fill the tank.

Water truck pre-ghosting

To our great annoyance, they got too nervous to stay in a refugee camp that night (which my brother did recently), and ‘boomeranged’. Basically, they just took their half payment, shut off their phones, and bailed. It pains me that this happens often enough that they made a word for it.

3. “You can’t leave your baby here.”

One of the rewarding parts of this work is that we get to hire people in remote communities with few employment opportunities to help us do the work. During the grass planting phase we hired a young women who was in dire need of employment.

On her first day, our team noticed she had left something under a wheelbarrow on the far side of the field. We ran over and realized it was a six-month-old baby in 90+ degrees weather. The baby appeared to be massively dehydrated and so we gave him water and some food right away. We have different standards for certain aspects of life in the US, but even our Ugandan team was shocked by this. Sadly, we had to let the mother go because we couldn’t rationalize the risk. These decisions are ones we have to make all the time here, but they never get easy.

4. “The landlord took our wheelbarrow hostage.”

One thing to know about UN refugee camps is that the UN does not often own the actual land. UNHCR works with landlords in remote areas to grant them land on their properties. The argument is that the development will greatly increase the long-term value of the land. This can create all sorts of problems with some landlords who hope to profit off the settlements. In a few extreme cases this includes sabotaging the work if they are not benefiting. Another reality of life here.

In our case one landlord did not like that we weren’t using his family to do our work. We try and hire a combination of refugees and outside experts. To express his displeasure he decided to steal our wheelbarrow and hose until we reached a compromise. This was one of those ‘it’s hard to be too mad when this is just hilarious’ situations, and we eventually did hire some of his family and he returned our equipment.

“That’s a nice wheelbarrow.. would be a real shame if something were to ‘happen’ to it.”

5. “Define ghost worker?”

Trust is the biggest challenge while working in a country with deeply rooted systemic corruption. For us, this challenge is compounded by generations of harmful aid and NGO policies which have basically made any foreigner a walking dollar sign. When a Ugandan on our team is negotiating for some item, it is not uncommon for the Americans to hide under hot sweatshirts in order to keep from being seen and quadrupling the asking price. Scams are constant and often hard to distinguish from local business culture.

Ghost Worker Scam: This is when we will pay a contractor for 15 people to do a job. We get a daily report with the comments, phone number, and signature of each worker paid. In reality there were only 10 workers and the 5 others either don’t exist or had no idea they were “working” for FUNDaFIELD that day. This is a simple con but devastatingly hard to prevent if we don’t have anyone on site.

Contract Job Scam: We pay John $100 to weld the goalposts together. John pays Steve from a nearby town $70 to do the job and $4 for transport. Steve pays his cousin $40 who works for him to go in his place. This chain continues until the least qualified, most desperate, cheapest, person is hired. This means that instead of a formula one driver (the quality level we are paying for), we get Rick in his barbie car. This is standard practice here and is something we have to work around for all projects.

The scams actually get pretty complicated and impressive. On this project alone we had someone fake the death of their child (the child was fine) as a reason for leaving the job, had multiple sim cards switched to conceal worker identity (we still tracked with GPS), and a ton of other tricks/schemes meant to cost FUNDaFIELD. Luckily mom has a superpower for detecting these but the energy to keep up is exhausting. Worse, it is often more operationally efficient to act like we know nothing and quietly fix the problem, or occasionally to just let it continue.

Sidenote: read Behind the Beautiful Forevers for a deeper look into how systemic corruption manifests at every level of life in a slum in India. A lot of parallels to places we have worked that are hard to understand until they are explained or experienced.

6. “The good soil slid down the hill.”

In our younger soccer days, we would agonize over what side we wanted to start any match. Wind conditions, sun angles, grass length, field slope, and even the viewing position of the most obnoxious parents were all taken into account.

To my teenage person surprise, a sloped pitch is actually design. Pending a professional grade drainage system, most field are build on a grade in order to drain rain away when needed. This is great except when you are building in a place where rain is sporadic and frequent. It meant that multiple times during the Palabek field construction process, our nice fertilized topsoil layer would get caught in the rain and slide down off the pitch. Many hours of shoveling and carrying the dirt back up the hill later, we would continue construction and pray to the rain gods for a few weeks of consistent weather. We ended up digging a trench at the top and side of the field to divert some of the water from flowing downhill.

7. “It takes many many many villages to build a goal.”

This is not a specific problem per se, but just an example of how simple seeming things can be so damn complicated here.

Steps for constructing a pair of FIFA regulation goals:

  1. Go to capital city of Kampala to buy massive poles for posts. Hide during negotiations.
  2. Hire truck, fuel, and a driver willing to drive poles 10 hours on bad roads to a refugee camp.
  3. Find a welder in Kitgum (two hours from camp).
  4. Pay for welder time, a generator and transport for welding to happen on site, otherwise goals would not be transportable.
  5. Ban all staff and workers from watching the welding without protective eye gear after one of them burns his eyes from staring into the flame.
  6. Hire a mason in camp to secure goals into the ground.
  7. Negotiate for cement in camp.
  8. Go to Gulu (two hours from camp) to find a painter. Have him come prime poles.
  9. Bring painter a second time to actually paint goals.
  10. Attach nets.
  11. PLAY! Simple as that.
I freaking love you (goal)

8. “Not all work is equal.”

One price per day for all sounds good in theory but is hard to execute in reality. If one of the local workers sees that the landlord’s people are working half as hard for double the pay, it’s not surprising they would be pretty pissed. Eventually, we took a page from the Ugandan agriculture playbook and use the katala system. This meant that we would divide the field into equal sized rectangles that would be owned by a single worker. Once complete, they hold some set value.

This method is also good for FUNDaFIELD because it allows us to look at each katala and judge the quality. We have accountability in terms of quality. This is key because planting grass is a time sensitive venture. Once the Pascalum (local grass) is dug up, we only have two days or so to get it replanted before it dies. This makes it a high-stress process that is costly to mess up. The katala saved the day.

9. “Guys… Our tent is on fire.”

Building a field and operating an NGO requires a lot of STUFF. We want this STUFF to be close to the field sites, so we need a space to put it. We bought a third party UNHCR tent which gave us an office and storage area right on the “downtown market” road at the reception area of camp. Sadly, we can’t afford to have someone constantly on guard, so our tent was broken into and robbed twice. Worse, on the long drive to Northern Uganda this week, we got a phone call saying a fire had also burned our tent. The good news is we will likely be able to salvage the current tent and move into a high security area!

Sidenote: We probably saw 20 different fires this week. These fires are partly accidental thanks to a severe dry season, and partly intentional for two reasons: First, by burning the bush, new healthier grass and plants will have an easier time growing back in the rainy season. Second, the fires smoke out massive (rabbit sized) local rats that are beaten and eaten. We always made fun of the Invisible Children folks for lying about eating giant rats, turns out it was completely true. Sorry Guys!!!!

10. “The daily grind.”

In addition to the work challenges above, the daily grind is grueling. We are only here a few weeks every few months, so we have to pack a lot in. Getting to the camp from town takes two hours each way and we have to be home by dark so it leaves us a narrow window. We take a narrow dirt road that is often blocked by mud, a fallen truck (way too common), or a stalled van (ours), which takes away precious daylight. English is limited and all of the tribes speak different languages which usually makes our Ugandan staff just as clueless as we are. There are cultural norms that will never be obvious to us no matter how much time is spent creating untold numbers of issues. It is often too hot to spend much time outside, and we only have the food and water we bring in. This usually means digestive crackers and a PB&J (made on antibacterial wipes on a laptop in the van) for food. Cell service is random and our generator often goes out. Many people don’t use data since it is costly, so it is often easier to just drive to someones home to have a discussion. I could go on and on but moral of the story here is that mom, and Sandy Storer, and Garrett and Nick, and Kira, and Justin and Manuel, and the many many people who have made these particular projects happen are total champs. Fundraising is hard, doing things right on the ground is infinitely harder.

The end result of all of this is that we have built two of the best (and most cost efficient) football pitches in Uganda at deserving schools in Palabek Refugee Camp.

The two primary schools combine to nearly 5000 young students with less than 40 teachers. After school community boys and girls teams use the fields at all times. Members of the community use the fields as a central gathering place and claim it as a source of identity. Dead serious, our biggest problem right now (one that we worked on this week) is how to schedule field use to stop overuse. This is actually a big challenge given a lack of enforcement methods that are effective against excited footballers.

Thanks for reading all five posts. This has been exhausting, but super fun and meaningful to write. I know I did not do certain aspects of the work/experience justice, I was dehydrated and exhausted each night, so thanks for sticking with it.

As always, please feel free to reach out with more questions and thoughts.

KW

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These are some of the issues, wanted to rapid fire some runner ups:

  • Your hotel is on a swamp and gets infected by mosquitos (this morning!)
  • The tree you sit under for shade starts raining bugs
delicious
  • Mom locks herself in the bathroom and security has to come take off the door
  • Taking a shower and brown water comes out
  • Your security guy has a bow and arrow
  • Defective bed nets
  • “We may be lost but we’re making good time.” -Storer fam
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Uganda Day 4: You build soccer fields.. Really?

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This post is part 4 of a daily series I am writing while in Uganda with FUNDaFIELD.org. I don’t talk about it much, but FUNDaFIELD is a 501(c)(3) I have been deeply involved in since age 13 and while I am not always able to dedicate the time I should, it is very important to me. While I have been to Uganda (and other FUNDaFIELD regions) many many times, every FUNDaFIELD trip is an adventure, so I thought it would be fun to document certain aspects of the experience. While I do work for FUNDaFIELD, I am writing this as a personal blog so my words should not be taken as organizational gospel. FUNDaFIELD is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization utilizing the therapeutic power of sports to support the rehabilitation and recovery process in post-conflict and post-trauma regions around the world. We work with local communities to provide sports fields(generally soccer and netball), sports equipment, and to host sports tournaments.

“Without football I cannot live.” – Henry, Zone 2

“…but why soccer?” 

Is the polite version of the most common question FUNDaFIELD gets. In some ways the answer is obvious, pull out a soccer ball in almost any part of the globe and watch the magic happen. Walk through any city or town during a world cup match.  Or cheat and watch Miracle, The Mighty Ducks (all of them), The Big Green, Remember The Titans or any other amazing sports film. Our world is filled to the brim with anecdotes and evidence of the power of sports.  

Still, it’s a question I have agonized over for a long time. It’s not that I dispute the massive benefits of football (soccer), it’s  that I also see the obvious impact of food and water programs, school funding, advocacy work and other important causes. As an organization, we need to know that every dollar we collect is providing enough benefit as to be completely justifiable. I am a huge advocate of the effective altruism movement which tries to quantify the impact of each dollar donated to various large organizations. I also believe that any development approach should be multi-faceted, ideally it’s a group of  specialized, impact driven, organizations working together to solve big problems in a measurable way. Finally, I believe governments have a moral responsibility to guarantee sufficient shelter, food, and healthcare to their civilians. If government fails to do so, then supranational organizations (UNHCR, World Food Program, etc) should be able to fill in the gaps. 

All this is to say that any organization should understand the benefit they provide, and how (or if) they fit into the overall development ecosystem. In FUNDaFIELD’s case, we believe that our position in the hierarchy comes directly after shelter, food, and physical well-being. That is, once a person’s basic survival needs are met, it becomes massively important to ensure their mental health and nurture some sense of hope for their future. I mentioned in post 1 that working with refugees was always the goal for FUNDaFIELD, and this is why. Once a person is able to live, our goal is to bring healing, joy and hope into that life. This is a sentiment that becomes painfully obvious in the camp. People are not happy if they have nothing to live for. I won’t pretend that sport is the single way to give every refugee what they deserve. I do think it is one of the most important and efficient methods for improving mental health and a massively worthwhile pursuit. 

To help explain why, I want to introduce two friends from Palabek who we have spent a fair bit of time with the last few days. Henry (22) and  and Julie (20) are long-time family friends from Pajok, South Sudan (names changed).

Red is Pajok – Blue is our hotel – Palabek Camp is somewhere between

They were both in secondary school the day the war came to their town. At that point, the whole village decided to run to the Ugandan border together. Similar to Marian from yesterday’s post, they were forced to run through the bush, barefoot, with no food and water. Julie described how, “some girls were on their period’s and they could not go home even for supplies. All we could do was to stay running for two days.” In the bush, things were not easy, “someone you knew would be in front of you running and then you might never see them again.” They say that while most of their village made it to the border, at least 100 are unaccounted for and presumably did not make it. Both are residents of Zone 2 and more importantly, footballers on two of the many teams in camp. 

Henry is a football fanatic. In a discussion of how identity is defined in camp, football was only second to his parents (and ahead of his wife and 2 month old child 🙂 ) as the cornerstone of his identity. “I have loved Cristiano Ronaldo since I was a small child and has remained a loyal Manchester United fan to this day. He dreams of playing pro and admits that one of the reasons he loves the FUNDaFIELD pitch in Zone 1, is because it brings outside teams and potential talent scouts into the camp. He often gets frustrated by the lack of opportunities for talented players outside the major urban centers. 

Aside from his own boundless love for the game, Henry explained to me that sports are a key element to camp stability. “At home in (South) Sudan, everyone works. Even a young person can find a job. Here, most of the guys have nothing to do. Football prevents stealing and other nonsense.” Football is one of the only recreational activities afforded to young people.  

That’s my home league!

More importantly, football keeps the peace in a community divided on tribal lines (often the same lines that caused the war in South Sudan in the first place). “Everyone here is from a different tribe. In the time of football we are friends. In other times we could fight. Even at home, I have guys who are in (rival) tribe who I play football with. This is the only time we are friendly.” On his own team, he has a total mix of Acholi, Nuer, Lotuko, and Madi players. “We are called ‘F.C. New’ and we speak English because we it is our only common language.” Finally, Henry mentioned how football was one of the ways the community has found a sense of normalcy in a distinctly abnormal situation. 

Julie does not have many positive things to say about her new life. Aside from her recent conversion to Christianity and her football team, she has struggled since that day in South sudan. She is soft spoken, shy, and as a 20 year-old far away from home, still unsure what her life means. Her dream is to move to Juba (capital of South Sudan) and become a nurse. She giggles and turns away when I ask about a family. When we discussed her current family, she explains how all of them are here in camp. Later, she gets quiet and tries to explain how her dad is with god. He was a fighter on the rebel side. She takes a minute and changes the subject. Between the language barrier, our unfamiliarity (Henry we had spent more time with), and the deeply painful nature of the subject, it was clear she had a lot more painful memories that would not be shared. 

Julie agrees with Henry that football is the ultimate way to pass time in camp. She has had trouble finding any work, so is generally idle after her daily tasks are complete. She asks, “What am I supposed to do around here? Where would I find a job?” She also explains that just because she plays football, she is not the only one who benefits. Since the whole community is very close(physically and emotionally), most of them are deeply invested in the teams and the facilities as community centers. Game days are the biggest events besides food delivery days in most of the camp. Finally, she loves being part of a team of strong girls from around the camp.

Post match win dance off (the pitch)

Unlike Henry, the main benefit Julie receives from her football team is the ability to forget. She pauses for almost a minute looking away from me before explaining, “For the girls, Football practice makes all the bad things disappear.” She got quiet after this and did not go into any more detail, but even her silence was powerful. Of all the benefit I think we can provide to a large number of refugees, this is the one I care about the most. Rumination on past trauma can be far more mentally devastating without a healthy means of distraction. Besides the physical benefits of sports on your brain,  they can also help to break powerful negative mental cycles for large groups of people simultaneously. One of my future dreams is to commission a full quantitative study of the mental health benefits of sports facilities to confirm our hypotheses here.

I could probably talk to another 10 footballers and have another 20 pages of notes on why they love football. I also could write another  20 pages of my own thoughts, and a final 20 summarizing the research on the benefits. However, to keep things honest and related to the current work, I wanted this to be focused on what they told me. I only chatted with Julie and Henry, but I think both of their stories do a better job than I ever could.  

Just took malaria meds. Time to go home and pass out way too early. Thanks if you made it this far. One more post tomorrow about the actual work we do/have been doing.

KDW

This was a tough one to publish because it is somehow too ambitious for a daily blog format. I probably should edit this for at least a few hours but am basically publishing stream of conscious typing in a bumpy van back from camp. Plz cut me some slacks.

Uganda Day 3: Who actually lives in the camp?

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This post is part 3 of a daily series I am writing while in Uganda with FUNDaFIELD.org. You can read Part 1 and Part 2. I don’t talk about it much, but FUNDaFIELD is a 501(c)(3) I have been deeply involved in since age 13 and while I am not always able to dedicate the time I should, it is very important to me. While I have been to Uganda (and other FUNDaFIELD regions) many many times, every FUNDaFIELD trip is an adventure, so I thought it would be fun to document certain aspects of the experience. While I do work for FUNDaFIELD, I am writing this as a personal blog so my words should not be taken as organizational gospel. FUNDaFIELD is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization utilizing the therapeutic power of sports to support the rehabilitation and recovery process in post-conflict and post-trauma regions around the world. We work with local communities to provide sports fields(generally soccer and netball), sports equipment, and to host sports tournaments.  

I was hesitant to write this post because generally I don’t like trafficking in misery. Telling a sad story with a picture of a sad child (often but not always in a developing country) is a classic NGO fundraising tactic that should be a red flag for potential donors. This form of emotional manipulation tends to be dehumanizing and demeaning to the person being profiled. It might work for some groups in the short term, but is not scalable or sustainable in the long run. In this case though, I believe understanding the camp experience is impossible without understanding the people who inhabit the camp. I also think I am trying to find the right balance of data driven big picture explanations and just remembering the human.

So, today Nick (one of our Ugandan team members) and I, sat down with some residents of Zones 1 and 7 of Palabek Settlement Camp and learned about their lives. It’s important to note that the two people I feature below were not pre-selected or chosen for any particular reason. You can think of them as basically random residents of the camp. Marian was registering her kids for their next term at the school we happened to be working, and Jacob owned a small shop across the road. Out of respect I will not use their real names and  have their permission to share all the details below. 


Marian

Marian is a 27 year old mother of three from Pajok, South Sudan. She loves singing and dancing and being a mom to her three boys. Marian and her husband lived what she described as the peaceful life of a farmer in Pajok. 

Marian was nervous to speak with us but once we started talking about her reasons for leaving, she opened up and became much more animated. The SPLA-IO rebel group wanted her husband’s help in their war against the government/president. One day they came to her door and asked her husband if he would act as an informant in their community. Wanting to remain uninvolved in the conflict, he refused to help. The men, furious, took Marian’s middle son and gave him a savage beating. Realizing that it was now impossible to be safe at home, the family decided to leave as soon as possible. Without packing any personal belongings, the five of them snuck out of their family home that same night to run to the border. In order to avoid the soldiers on the roads, they had to stay in the bush (basically the wilderness) day and night. Their son was still bleeding badly and had trouble running keeping up with the family. Following two days of minimal food, constant running, and endless terror, they reached the border. 

After two weeks trying to stay find food for the little ones while waiting at the border, the whole family was put on a bus and taken to Palabek Refugee Camp. For reasons not so clear to me, they ended up spending a month in the reception area before getting their land grant from UNHCR. At this point Marian’s son was treated in the hospital for his swollen kidneys and various other injuries. 

Life in the camp has been tough on Marian and her team. The monthly food ration is not nearly enough for 3 growing boys, a problem made worse because they have to sell part of their ration to cover life costs. Still, Marian is happy for the current stability and expressed her dream of a solid education and reliable healthcare for her boys. 


Jacob

Jacob is 26 with a father working in the financial industry, same as me. Unlike me, Jacob is from Wau State Village in West Bahr el-Ghazal Sudan He is a member of the Balanda tribe who had no particular stake in the war but have since been dispersed on both sides of the conflict.  Jacob was in secondary school in South Sudan before the war came to him. Life was, “Normal… You had your place in life and that was it.” 

Caption game on point

When the war eventually made it to Wau State, Jacob stressed how arbitrary it all felt. People started being killed, and in many cases you had no idea why or whether there was even a reason. He calmly described how a Land Rover would come down the street and the men in the back would just start firing. The road out of town was blocked and he started losing friends en masse. Jacob’s voice gets a bit less steady as he describes the event that convinced his parents to send him away. His younger brother was walking home from church choir practice one afternoon at around 5:00 pm. Soldiers drove up and gunned down all three boys. The family still does not know why. Jacob stayed for the funeral and then immediately was on a bus with his older brother to the border. His parents could not afford to leave themselves, or to send their other children with the two brothers. Eventually the remaining children would be sent to a safer area up north. 

After 9 days waiting at the border with only biscuits to live off, Jacob and his brother were bussed to Palabek. Unlike Marian, Jacob did not speak Acholi (the local language in Palabek),  so the reception process was confusing and overwhelming. Now though, Jacob has a stable life in Zone 7 where he runs his shop to try and save up some money. He appreciates the safety in camp but as is common, complains about boredom. Said better, “In camp you are not happy because you have nothing to do, but you are happy because you are alive.” After saying this, he flashes  a big grin and mentions his recent wedding and two-year-old child. He can’t afford a cell phone, but he was able to use his brother’s phone to send his parents a picture of the baby. Jacob does not have a big dream to share with us because, “I need to think about today in the camp. A dream is for tomorrow.”


This is a small sample of the nearly 40 thousand people in this single settlement. The lightbulb for me has been how hopeless life must be for someone to abandon everything they know and just run for it without even knowing if they will make it or if they will be able to survive where they are going. While many of us have strong preconceived notions of what kind of person a refugee is, there are a striking mix of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds that all find themselves in a similar position. 

Soapbox: Americans/Europeans reading this… For a variety of reasons, I think we have a habit of dehumanizing and demonizing refugees. It’s easy to forget that making the sort of sacrifice they do, for just a slim glimmer of hope, is insanely courageous. Leaving everything and everyone (especially to save your family) is not easy and at the very least refugees worldwide should be treated with respect and dignity. Rant over.

That’s all for today. You will all be pleased to know that my bed net was completely functional last night.

KDW

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Uganda Day 2: First Impressions of Palabek Refugee Camp

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This post is part 2 of a daily series I am writing while in Uganda with FUNDaFIELD.org. I don’t talk about it much, but FUNDaFIELD is a 501(c)(3) I have been deeply involved in since age 13 and while I am not always able to dedicate the time I should, it is very important to me. While I have been to Uganda (and other FUNDaFIELD regions) many many times, every FUNDaFIELD trip is an adventure, so I thought it would be fun to document certain aspects of the experience. While I do work for FUNDaFIELD, I am writing this as a personal blog so my words should not be taken as organizational gospel. FUNDaFIELD is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization utilizing the therapeutic power of sports to support the rehabilitation and recovery process in post-conflict and post-trauma regions around the world. We work with local communities to provide sports fields(generally soccer and netball), sports equipment, and to host sports tournaments.       

We just got back sweaty, hungry, sunburned and tired from our first day in the Palabek camp. I am currently in the processing stage but wanted to use this to unpack some of things that stood out about the experience. We have been working on this project since 2017 so I had a good idea what to expect, but it was a LOT to take in regardless.

After a long apocalyptic night in which a defective mosquito net brought many friends into my bed, many bites to my skin, and many bloody mosquito corpses to my sheets, it was pretty uplifting to see this after the two hour drive into camp:

The reception area of camp was probably the most striking in that it as the epicenter of operations. The most secure area here housed the office tents for all the major contributors, including UNHCR, LWF, OPM, Plan Int, World Food Program, etc..  

Nearby, sit the tents where the refugees are organized and registering after the journey south. At arrival, they are queued and directed to a storage area for their possessions.

Storage* Nothing for sale

Next, they begin the documentation/biometrics and medical screening process before receiving essentials. The whole process takes less than 24 hours and ends with the new arrivals being granted a 30ft x 30ft plot of land, a grass slasher, ropes, a hoe, a wheelbarrow, and the branded UNHCR tarp that would be the roof of the hand-made shelter.

Some home items for cooking, sleeping, carrying water, and other basic needs are also provided. The policy is actually quite progressive given that the land grants are dispersed with the local Ugandans who do not always share a tribe with the new arrivals. This whole area of the camp while not glamorous in the slightest, was impressive.

Outside the central command area, the rest of the camp felt much more like the rest of Northern Uganda than the mental image I had of a ‘refugee camp’. It was basically a massive (many KMs) amount of land that was divided into 8 zones, with a ton of structures (mostly living) dispersed throughout. After their immediate survival needs were met, it appeared that many people had taken the time to build the clay brick round and square structures that are common in the region. While the homes were slightly more concentrated and missing any crops, for the most part it felt like any other northern village we have spent time in over the years.

Imagine thousands of similar clusterings.

That said, there were certain somewhat blatant reminders of where we were.

The big white community tents with agency logos, the branded signs with various empowering/hopeful messages, the branded corn miller that had been granted to an entrepreneurial business group, and the brand new (though not in all cases) schools, were all constant reminders that we were in a settlement for people running away from war. 

Overall, the thing that impressed me the most was the scale and stability of the operation. The camp is massive even by car, and while the signs of struggle and poverty are widespread, it does seem like people are able to get by thanks to all the amazing organizations working in lockstep. Things were not always this good, I have photos from previous FUNDaFIELD trips where what now is a Kindergarden and a massive play area was just some shade under a tree, but with time it is hard not to be impressed.  

This is now a shiny new (crowded) school and play area.

All of this is essentially a high-level infrastructure tour and does not even touch on the individuals we have been meeting, or the work we are doing (Spoiler: The fields are amazing). Still, I think it is good to understand the people and work in context.

That’s it for now! Need shower. Smell terrible.

KW

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Uganda Day 1: “.. BUT WHY ARE YOU EVEN THERE?”

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This post is part 1 of a daily series I am writing while in Uganda with FUNDaFIELD.org. I don’t talk about it much, but FUNDaFIELD is a 501(c)(3) I have been deeply involved in since age 13 and while I am not always able to dedicate the time I should, it is very important to me. While I have been to Uganda (and other FUNDaFIELD regions) many many times, every FUNDaFIELD trip is an adventure, so I thought it would be fun to document certain aspects of the experience. While I do work for FUNDaFIELD, I am writing this as a personal blog so my words should not be taken as organizational gospel. FUNDaFIELD is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization utilizing the therapeutic power of sports to support the rehabilitation and recovery process in post-conflict and post-trauma regions around the world. We work with local communities to provide sports fields(generally soccer and netball), sports equipment, and to host sports tournaments.

When we changed the FUNDaFIELD mission statement 5+ years ago, the most substantive change was to include the following, “to support the rehabilitation and recovery process in post-conflict and post-trauma regions around the world.” We had never commissioned a holistic study of our impact (something I would like to change going forward), but we have strong qualitative indicators and a ton of external research showing the value of sports in developing communities against a bunch of metrics. Still, I was insecure about asking people for money if we weren’t positive that we were using the money effectively. By focusing on post-conflict/post-trauma regions, we would be targeting the benefits of the work to one of the most deserving groups of children on the planet. That was always the dream for FUNDaFIELD, so it has been cool to see that transformation while I have been busy with full-time employment life. 

The most personally invigorating consequence of this change came in 2017 when FUNDaFIELD partnered with the UN Refugee Agency and the office of the Ugandan Prime Minister on two projects at the established Palabek Refugee Camp in Northern Uganda. Palabek is one of multiple camps built from 2017-2018 to house over 1 million refugees, most of whom are fleeing a violent civil war at home in South Sudan. Palabek is comprised of seven zones home to over 34k South Sudanese people, over 80% of whom are women and children.

You can learn more about Palabek, but one of the most consistent themes is that youth idleness is a massive problem. From that same fact-sheet issue summary, one of the biggest problems in the camp is that, “the lack of vocational institutions has left the youth idle due to the limited opportunities available following primary school.”  The camps are extremely remote, and mix both Dinka and Neur, the two sides brutality warring at home. This creates significant ethnic tension and so integration and fostering community are crucial. I would explain more, but honestly UNHCR does a better job than I ever could in this report on the importance of sports in refugee camps.

We have finished our first project and held a massive soccer tournament to celebrate the transition of ownership to the local community. Humble Brag: By all accounts this was the by far the most positive event in the settlement’s short history and the UNHCR/OPM leaders want to make tournaments more routine! Go team!  

Tournament @ Zone 1 Field in Palabek

The purpose of this particular trip is to develop long term sustainability plans to keep the projects at maximum utilization for the duration of the camp’s existence (will be many years). I personally have never been inside a camp (our last two days have been formalizing some paperwork, the UN keeps the camps very secure), and am so excited to get a better understanding of the situation and the people. It’s easy to think of everything as metrics, finances, goals, etc.. actually being able to talk to people (and hopefully kick a ball around) will humanize the whole experience in a more profound way. The term ‘refugee’ is so politicized at this point that it is hard to forget that these are normal people whose situation hasn’t gotten so scary that they run away (often with very few possessions) from their lifelong homes to a foreign country to live in a camp. It’s a fun thought experiment to think about what the situation at home would have to be for you to leave with any surviving family and whatever you could carry on your back, and to walk south (on a road full of rampant physical/sexual/mental abuse) until you end up in a another country that might give you a tent and basic supplies. Now think about the impact this journey would have on a young child. It is not pretty, but also motivating for us to understand in person. Stay tuned here.

That’s it for now. Look for an update tomorrow. Feel free to comment any questions you have. 

KW

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Summer Camp, Israel, and How Humans Communicate

I’ve been thinking a lot about summer camp. Summer camps tend to have this magical ability to create an intensity and depth to experience and interaction that overpowers our typical perception of time. Two weeks in summer camp can feel like a whole year lived in the real world. Why? I think a lot of it has to do with the isolation and unstructured time. While the activities certainly are a key part of the experience, the ‘lay around the cabin on sleeping bags gossiping about who had a crush on who or which counselors were smoking down by the creek at night in secret or how much our parents didn’t get it,’ was for me, the cornerstone of the experience. This extended/forced interaction time which ranged from trivial to intensely serious was (I think) a huge reason for the magical sensation of knowing camp people better than the people you had known your whole life on the outside. This was rendered particularly clear when you saw the yearly regulars interact and act as if only a day had passed since they saw each other last. 

I was lucky enough to spend last weekend in Tel Aviv on a layover after moving out of the city six months ago. It was the most refreshing few days I could have asked for largely because of how easy it felt. Like returning to camp after a year, it seemed as if I had never left. The friends, the rhythm, the jokes, the lifestyle all felt so incredibly easy. My friends being in agreement, we talked a lot about why this might be and I think it comes down to two main cultural reasons:

1. The focus on being with each other instead of doing things together.

2. The unfiltered conversation. 

Israelis (and probably much of the world), have a different conception of friendship and quality time than we do in the states. In the US, we talk about what we are going to do: “Want to see a movie?”  “Let’s all go hike!” “Have you been to this exhibit?” “This bar is weird as hell and has amazing cocktails, we should grab a drink before dinner.” “What are you doing Saturday morning for brunch?” “Have you ever done X?” We crave experiences and trying novel things. We then bond over that experience which serves as a springboard to relationship depth. Conversely, in Israel, the focus is much more on time spent and general conversation than actual activities. Certainly setting matters (the vibey spots in Tel Aviv are full 24/7 and are a scene in their own right), but the focus is much more on being. This leads to an onslaught of interactions that are often trivial and silly, but just as often, intense and worldview challenging. I can’t think of how many blurry nights were spent just sitting at a trendy, grungy, outdoor bar in south Tel Aviv for five plus hours with a mix of close friends and strangers covering every aspect of life. 

The second difference is the unfiltered conversations that Israelis pride themselves on. In the states, we are masters of subtext and reading between the lines. Without even trying, we filter our conversations through a massive amount of context; our relationship with the person we are speaking, the dynamics and personalities of the group, their religious and political sensibilities, the politically correct manner of expression, even how a conversation might be replayed to others (Ex: This blog… I definitely try and balance genuine expression with an awareness of the people who I know will read it.. Hopefully it is more the former, but such is life). In Israel, this sort of interaction is generally frowned upon, even with complete strangers. Our conversations in Tel Aviv are much more straightforward,  brutally hilarious, and  our feelings are on display for the world to see. I was amazed this weekend at how effortlessly I was able to talk through some of the life/mental/adjustment struggles I have been having recently without any awkwardness or obfuscation. This, after months of rumination and living in my own head was a 1000 lb weight off my shoulders. There is a dark side to this style of communication as well though. It can be unnecessarily hurtful, blatantly offensive, insensitive to the nuances of life, and can reinforce/normalize harmful norms (racism, sexism, classism etc) that the US is trying to progress past. However, in a day-to-day sense it is a refreshingly honest way to live.

You (the royal you) should know that I am completely generalizing for the sake of argument. Everything exists in a much grayer area and many many people on either side of the Atlantic do not live as I describe.. I am using my own life as a reference point which is intellectually lazy but blogtellectually convenient. I am not endorsing either way of living. I see the value in both and am focused on enjoying both as they are.  That said, I think the summer camp feeling is one of the greatest mindful sensations in life and worth cultivating in whatever way possible. Grateful for everyone I got to spend three days that felt like a year with. 

Just got to Uganda. Stay tuned.

KW

Tales From My Day Job

Today I published my first blog post for BlazingDB, the startup I do product management for! It is BY FAR the most technical post I have ever written, so am proud in that respect. Feel free to reach out with any questions!

https://blog.blazingdb.com/data-lake-to-ai-blazingsql-rapids-initial-benchmark-aa753031ac8b

What do you even do man?

If you are curious what Product Management even is, this article does a decent (if somewhat sanctimonious) job summarizing, but basically the job is to work with all stakeholders (but mostly engineering, design, and the business) to figure out what your team should build next, and how do so. It involves a lot of brainstorming, testing hypotheses, and getting super deep into the minds of users to figure out what they want. My current role is less traditional product work relative to my past company (Intuit) where I worked on projects like this one, but fascinating and fun in a completely different way. I actually do think a lot of product fundamentals are pretty interesting and have broad cross-discipline applications, so will try and post a bit more about that in the future.

ok that is all. Back to bizzznesss

Kyle

The artists you didn’t know you wanted to see at Coachella 2019

Or.. how weird can we get booking chella 2019?

Note: This is a music/Coachella post.. If you don’t care, then skip to a random post! If you do then please do read this piece by Paul Tollet, the boss of Coachella (and a huge number of CA music venues/shows). He talks about some of topics I mention below and has an invaluable perspective. Also.. Tim Storer added some content to this post. Thanks Timmy!

Well said reddit

Booking Coachella is a uniquely challenging process in festival world. Often, the lineup drops to a collective groan and subsequent whining on social media, and this year is no exception. Things were not helped by the late headliner switcheroo from Kanye, Justin Timberlake, and Childish Gambino to Ariana Grande, Tame Impala, and Childish. All fine and potentially headliner deserving acts, but collectively they shouldn’t be headlining the ‘best’ music festival in America.

Despite all this, when we look back at any Coachella lineup a year (or multiple years) later, it looks fantastic. When you compare it to the rest of the big festivals that drop in the subsequent weeks, it tends to look even better.

COACHELLA 2012 : Childish on second line from bottom, M83 and Explosions in The Sky the same night.. So much gooooooddddddd


Many factors combine to create this phenomenon, but I personally believe it is largely because Coachella doesn’t approach booking like other festivals. Instead of trying to look at the available artists and curating the best combination, Coachella is often trying to figure out who the up-and-comers are that will be at the top of next year’s lineups. It is a LOT harder to anticipate the next big thing than to pick from the current crop of known artists. Being the first festival to announce every year also means that Coachella is the first to promote artists to big spots. Since headlining Coachella, The Weeknd has topped the bill on seemingly every festival on the planet and nobody thought twice, but at the time people couldn’t believe his slot. This gatekeeper role also extends to the shows themselves. Artists know that this one festival can determine their poster placement for a full album cycle, so they give this show absolutely everything they have.   Sometimes this strategy fails, Phoenix (who I love) never lives up to their headliner promotion, Outkast bombs their first show in 12 years, Drake comes on way late and then bombs, etc.. For the most part though, the GoldenVoice folks tend to have an impressively accurate pulse on the industry. 


Functionally, this means that making the most of the experience takes some work. For some of us, this is the best part of the game, and the lead-up is almost as fun as the actual festival. Digging through the tiny print, reading endless reddit threads, and watching way too many live videos to figure out what’s what. (Some next level internet heroes even spend considerable energy trying to predict set time and stage placement if you want to go way down the rabbit hole) Given the enjoyment we get out of this process, it seemed worth sharing some of the lesser known artists that in my (probably) controversial opinion, are worth checking out. Note: I tended to lean a bit more into the weirder side of the lineup this year since often those are the more unique/rare experiences.

So without further nonsense, here are the less popular bands we think you shouldn’t miss at Coachella 2019:

Parcels

If you like: Random Access Memories, Escort, Saturday Night Fever, Dancing, CHIC, Music

While Daft Punk might never tour their Random Access Memories album, Parcels is as close as one could reasonably ask for. Parcels is a silky-smooth 5 piece disco electro-pop group that is deeply rooted in the 70s, but maintains an unmistakably modern aura. They actually do have a song produced by Daft Punk after the robots were blown away by the Parcels live show. This has my vote for best (and most euphorically funky) dance party of the weekend and I don’t even think it will be close.

Hoping for a daytime tent situation.. Maybe even close the Sonora?!

Listen To: Withorwithout -> Iknowhowifeel -> Older -> Tieduprightnow

Bonus points for adding live jam sessions into most songs in their set

Lets Eat Grandma

If you like: Purity Ring, SOPHIE, Chvrches, Experimental Electronic Pop, The XX,

Pitchfork titled their feature, “Let’s Eat Grandma Are the Wonderfully Weird Pop Duo We Need Right Now” and honestly I don’t have a better way of phrasing it. They are two 19 year-old girls from the UK that make some disarmingly complex yet somehow still accessible music and released their second full length studio album in 2018. In a single track they might sing, play a recorder solo, play some live sax, create a beat by playing patty-cake, and then finish with a nasty guitar solo. Their album is dark and weird and massive and the production feels like something that showed up to the party 5 years early in the best way possible. As might be obvious, these girls are my personal favorite discovery on the lineup by far music wise. Praying for late at night in the Gobi.

Unlike some artists, if you dig into Let’s Eat Grandma, do so with the best pair of headphones you can get your hands on. The production is so nuanced and intricate that substandard audio can significantly detract from the experience.

Tracks: Falling Into Me, Donnie Darko (masterpiece), It’s Not Just Me, Hot Pink (SOPHIE Produced)

Come for the weird, stay for the sax

Khraungbin

If you like: Psychaedelic rock, Jazz-rock fusion, jam bands, world music

In a lot of ways, Khruangbin seems like the least-likely band to be blowing up right now. It’s an all-instrumental band with not even a modicum of modernity: no electronica influence whatsoever, no big light show or theatrics, no punchy lyrics or trendy social media backstory. Against all odds, these guys are (rightfully) propelling themselves to stardom with nothing but good, old-fashioned drums, guitar, bass, and a rare addition of a lyric here or there (pretty sure Spotify plays tripled in 2018). So how is this new and exciting? What is this? 1969?

I think there’s two things going on here. First, they might rely a lot on old-school instruments and tricks, but they are damn good at them. I’m no guitar player, but by all accounts Mark Speer is all-time great (and raving reviews from guitar nuts corroborates this). And no matter how modest they try to be about the bands origins, DJ (drums) and Laura (bass) also kick ass at their jobs, and thrown down perfect tight and groovy rhythms for Mark to just wail over. They are a simply a tighttttt freaking band.

Second, while their ingredients are old school, their style is 100% fresh from the field. Thai funk, latin rock, 60s instrumental rock, jazz, blues, Arabic music, and more are all woven together with interlocking melodies. But, despite that variety, every single moment of every Khruagbin song sounds exactly like…. Khruangbin. If you were looking for a textbook example of stylistic versatility while also keeping a concise brand… look no further.

They also wear cool wigs. To be honest it might just be the wigs.

Kero Kero Bonito

If you like: Synthpop, STRFKR, J Pop, DDR, Not really getting it but enjoying it

Kero Kero Bonito is one of those groups that you sort of just have to go see what happens. They blend a large and eclectic mix of styles and vibes that comes out sounding like some sort of strange, bouncy, synthpop, dance party that happens in a warehouse on Halloween all in a video game. Oh also they often start rapping in Japanese mid-track….

Would jump for this (2:50 is best part)

Listen To: Time Today, Flamingo, Trampoline, Sick Beat 

FKJ

If you like: Mellowtronica™, Jazz-electronic, jazz, chillhop, grooving out

FKJ has been doing the same thing his whole career and I hope that he keeps doing that same thing. Because he is getting even better at it, nobody else does it better, and I totally love it.

When making a playlist of late-night, jazz-infused mellowtronic stuff, I had to force myself not to simply title it “FKJ-esque.” It’s basically Tom Misch, but instead of being boring and repetitive it’s actually really awesome. To be sure, it’ll be damn near impossible for FKJ to top his Do Lab surprise set in 2017 – the vibes in that tent (space to groove, intimate setting, mood lights, non-directional dancing, and freaking trapeze dancers hanging from the ceiling) were such a perfect pairing with his style that it literally pains me to imagine him forced to geek out on his piano and sax in front of a dispersed crowd of mid-afternoon loungers in, dare-I-say, the Sahara? God please no. Put this man at night, and put him in a one of the small tents. (And please, give him another Do Lab set!). Time/stage selection pending, this could be one of the most solidly groovy and feel-good moments of the festival, and also really impressive musically – I honestly don’t know how many instruments he can play. 3-4 at least.

Clozee

If you like: World Music, Melodic House, Trap Music, Asian Influenced EDM

Clozee is that rare artist who manages to fuse two vastly different genres of music and somehow elevate the result above the individual components. She takes tribal/world/local music from every region imaginable and blends it seamlessly with future bass and trap music. This without sacrificing any of the melodic beauty of the original styles. For those that are not interested in electronic music (this used to be me), listening to Clozee’s album might change your mind.

Also because her live sets are supposed to be straight fuego and we all need at least one excuse to go full Sophomore year in the Sahara each festival.

Listen To: Evasion (song and album), Desert, Red Forest or this mixtape

Perfume

If you like: K-pop, J-pop, Porter Robinson, 2050 level technical production

Everyone freaked out when K-pop group BLACKPINK was on the lineup. Understandably so.. their music is fantastic. But.. in all the BLACKPINK hubub, everyone missed that Perfume, a Japanese pop group, had also snuck on there. Perfume are what would happen if my grandchildren’s grandchildren sent a group back in time to show them how weirdly awesome the future would be. They make big, happy, anime inspired, Japanese pop. Stylistically they hit traditional pop, synth pop, techno, DnB and everything in between. They are best known for their super insane live show technical setups, which by all accounts are a complete sonic overload. This is one of those ‘just show up and let it happen’ type shows.

Listen To: Tokyo Girl, Future Pop, Let Me know.. then go check out their old stuff.. it’s great.. and so so so weird.. also just google their live shows..

This is just an intro.. but sweet mother of mary this is the most mind-melting live performance I have ever seen of anything.. ever… and this guy agrees.. https://www.wired.com/2015/03/hot-damn-concert-straight-future/ (but he also tries to explain the tech which is cool)

Other shows worth seeing:

Friday: Childish Gambino, Rufus Du Sol!, Anderson Paak, Kolsch, Jauz, SOPHIE, Kacey Musgraves, BLACKPINK

Saturday: Tame Impala, Kid Cudi, Four Tet, Aphex Twin, Bob Moses, Jain, SALES, Maggie Rogers, Christine and the Queens

Sunday: Jon Hopkins, Dennis Lloyd, Chvrches, Gesaffelstein!, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Jan Blomqvist!, Soccer Mommy, Mansionair, Shallou

Do Cephalopods Dream of Electric Sheep?

“ If we can make contact with cephalopods (Octopus/Cuttlefish in this instance) as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” 


 I like aliens. I love the Fermi Paradox, I love a good UFO siting, I follow SETI, and I think Contact is one of the best movies ever made (Sidebar: Contact has aged exceptionally well. It tries to portray our world a it would actually react to something like an alien landing and IMO does a fantastic job. Go watch this movie). More than anything though, I love how aliens provide super mind-melting thought experiments for philosophers. In particular, I think aliens tend to lend themselves well to thought experiments about Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Language. 


The best example I can think to demonstrate this is the book/movie, Arrival and how they portray the visitors. The aliens in Arrival have their own written language system, and they have a super cool method through which they express that language to each other, but that is all relatively standard in the sci-fi universe. For me, the thing Arrival does so incredibly well is how it portrays the aliens conception of the world. For them, instead of perceiving on a linear timeline, time is flat. Any moment is can be  understood and communicated  in terms of the past, present, and future simultaneously. I love this concept and could go on for a bit, but for the purposes of this post that will suffice. 

Note to self: Watch Arrival again. 


Besides encouraging you all to see/read Arrival, I think this example does a great job showing one of the most fascinating parts of philosophy; The Problem Of Other Minds. This is basically the idea that at any given time we have absolutely no clue how anyone else is experiencing the world. You may know someone better than anyone else, but you can never directly understand their existence. The classic being the color red. If you lived your whole life in a world without the color, I could explain all the properties of red, but until you actually saw it, you would never truly “grok” it (to grok is basically to understand fully and comes from another god tier sci-fi book called, Stranger in a Strange Land, also add to your lists). Same thing goes for grokking other people. Same thing goes 10x for aliens, you have no idea if they even exist on a linear timeline (Arrival), are capable of independent thought, have a concept of other beings etc.. We have no clue how they might perceive the world because they evolved (probably) in a completely different way from ourselves. 

send me philosophy jokes.. dad humor to the max.


Ok,  now back to the octopus. 


The quote at the top of the post is the hype quote in a bunch of previews/reviews for a book called, “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness,” written by philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith. Besides having an excellent cover, I am a pretty big fan anything that sits at the intersection of philosophy and cool under-water shchtuff so I was pretty jazzed to read this one. While the book ends up focused less on philosophy and more on cephalopods and the evolution of intelligence, it is muy muy interesante. 


The idea is basically that we used to think of our mammal and bird friends as being the intelligent ones, while mollusks were more at the insect tier. We now know that this is not true, that  cephalopods are actually extremely intelligent and complex creatures with individual personalities, self-awareness, and complex behaviors. They are consistently described as curious and are innovative problem solvers. They are playful and tend to be hard to keep in captivity thanks to their penchant for creative escape. They approach novel tasks (like breaking open a shell ) with different (and often complex) solutions, a signal many researchers use as a proxy for self-awareness. Finally, octopus, and to an even greater extent cuttlefish, have a camouflage system that is result of tens of thousands of pigmented cells and a crazy mirroring system. Think of your skin being an HDTV that is directly controlled by your nervous system. All of this is to say  that certain cephalopods are considered  exceptionally intelligent. This is great, but not unique to cephalopods in the animal kingdom.

CAMO CAMO CAMO


The thing that makes these animals so interesting is that they basically developed on a completely separate evolutionary branch from all mammals and birds. Our common ancestor is thought to be a worm-like creature in the Cambrian period 600 million years ago.. For contrast our common ancestor with monkeys is thought to be about 5-7 million years ago.  This is why Godfrey-Smith thinks Octopus and co are the closest thing to aliens we  might ever interact with. If they are indeed conscious, then they are almost certainly conscious in a way that is fundamentally different than us. COOL! That is not guaranteed, for example the octopus eye is shockingly similar to ours (though thought to be colorblind which is wild given the HDTV skin), so independent evolutionary processes can end up producing similar features (even underwater),  but from my (admittedly basic) understanding of cephalopods, their minds are very much unique. Based on a whole host of environmental factors which you can read about in the book if you want, octopi  developed insanely complex nervous systems. They have about 500 million neurons, or about 30 thousands times as many as the mollusk, and about as many as some monkeys. Still less than our 80+ billion neurons, but significant. Even crazier, some neurons are partly concentrated in a “brain” like area, but the rest are spread all through the body. So when a curious octopus friend touches you with his tentacle, he is actually tasting and feeling you in a strangely intimate way. If an octopus loses a tentacle, that tentacle still has the ability to independently react to external stimuli. 


So this all leads to the grand question of consciousness. In philosophy world this question usually gets broke up into two parts:


A. The Consciousness Question: Are other minds (in this case animals and specifically cephalopods) conscious?

 B. The Phenomenological Question: Can we actually understand that experience?


Question A is tough because humanity has not even agreed upon a universal framework for understanding our own consciousness, so trying to define that clearly and then apply it to others is nearly impossible.  In humans the understanding is that we first developed an internal coordination system to coordinate actions between our own organs. Over the course of million years, this internal coordination system evolved to include some sense of cause and effect. This ability to understand cause and effect out of subjective experience is what would eventually build the foundation for our consciousness. Interesting side bar, it is assumed that a big jump for us was the development of complex language. Our own internal monologue is generally funneled through language, so we understand consciousness and language to be closely linked (philosophy of language is super fun and worth reading about).  That said, one proxy we typically use for consciousness in others is whether an organism is aware of actions they are engaging in, and the purpose of said actions. Many of the consciousness tests run on animals are testing for this. While I am not familiar enough with the research to say conclusively where cephalopods land on these tests, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s preponderance of evidence seems to imply that the answer to question A is yes so I am going to default to him on this one. 


Question B is a lot tougher, and a lot more interesting. In some ways, question A might be irrelevant. Their completely separate evolution path might mean that the subjective experience of an octopus is so fundamentally foreign (a la Arrival) from our own that trying to ascribe our own understanding of consciousness is not even worthwhile. Question B becomes even more relevant in that situation. Essentially we are saying that even if our definitions of consciousness don’t apply, we still want to understand the conscious experience of an octopus. This is where the language question becomes relevant. Humans rely on language to interface with our own consciousness, and we have no indication that cephalopods have language as we conceive of it. They can signal with their body positioning and possibly their skin coloring, but so far we only know they interact with physical actions like jabbing or playing. None of this is indicative of an internal monologue. Second, as far as we know, the individual tentacles, while generally being part of a central coordinated system, still have some autonomy. Can we conceive of a semi-autonomous limb? I personally have a tough time imagining my food acting independently, but obviously plenty of actions (like breathing) happen subconsciously so who knows. 


I could go on for a while. I really like this stuff. However, it is pretty clear that we end with more questions than answers, so Ill end with one of my favorite quotes ever ever from Virginia Woolf, “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” 

Rough translation being the idea that all of the most beautiful/powerful aspects of the human experience are just sensations that are fed into our consciousness. Pretty cool stuff. 


Postscript: Another cool thread in this book is about how some chimps have only four sounds and yet they are able to have and understand immensely complex and rich social relations. On the flip side, cuttlefish could feasibly  communicate in ways more rich than most humans, yet live exceptionally anti-social lives. Weird.. Oh and also most (not all) octopi live only a few years and die after a single reproductive cycle despite their “expensive” nervous systems. Contrasting this with a tree is headache inducing.  Aging is crazy and might end up being a whole new post down the road. 

Glorious octopus escape.
I find this video 50%  hilarious 50% terrifying and 50% amazing

26 years later

In all of the ways, 25 is a strange year to reflect on. A dizzying roller-coaster of some of the most wonderful, most challenging, most liberating, most stimulating, most emotionally taxing, and most beautiful times of my life. More than any other period in the trivial amount of time that is my own existence, the person sitting in his new apartment in Tel Aviv wondering if any of his new friends would attend his birthday party (they did!), is a far different person than the one sitting in San Francisco today. At this point I was planning on listing all the moments/events in the last year that caused this change, but got overwhelmed while writing and scrapped the idea. At present moment, my mind is oscillating somewhere between the middle of a dust-storm and the first second of sleep paralysis, so I honestly haven’t grappled with what that shift means in a more forward-looking existential sense, but instead  have some thoughts on the past year in isolation: 

The feeling I can express without hesitation about the tumultuous last 365 days is an immense and overwhelming sense of gratitude for everyone who has played a part of it.

To Ben, Ollie, Guy, Sivan, Laura, Hannah, Barr, Eli, Nico, Mor, Jess, Daniel, Alina, Gilat, Gal, Jon,  Roee, Sunshine, Merav, Anat, Elhanan, Shallin, Sami the whole Mint team, and so so so many others in Israel: 

Thank you for teaching me so much of what it means to hold on to the present moment for dear life. Thank you for making a smollanaim, nomad,  part of your family in every sense of the word since before I even arrived. Thank you for forcing me to drop my armor and showing me the power of absolute vulnerability. Thank you for teaching me how to maintain one’s mind, body, and soul with more than just words and promises. Thank you for letting me be reborn in the dessert, for letting me do the most meaningful and exciting work of my life on Mint, for having me over to watch your kids because you knew I missed my own family. Thank you for demonstrating that sometimes the vibe is most important part of the night and for coming to the tattoo studio with me. Thank you for your endless calls and help with the Israeli medical system when the Bells Palsy came. Thank you for the helping me in the weeks and months afterward with smoothies, for visits to my dark apartment, for not making me feel like an alien when my face took longer than we thought. Most importantly thanks to you all (and the London and Denmark crews), for accepting that friendship goes so far beyond the time we spent in the same place together. That transience is not a reason to avoid intimacy. Thanks for accepting that I am a terrible communicator but am still thinking of you all constantly and will keep bothering you for many years to come. So much more to say, but ill cap it there. 

To Timmy, Audrey, Julian, Nick, Dodds, Colby, Charlie, Zane, Maya, Katie, Choy, Kate, Lauren, Russell, Lauren, Hanna, Yoshi, Maya, Ian, Sam, Ben, Eliana, Tasia, Sooch, Jamie, Jill, Cece,  all the Claremonters, and (almost) everyone who has been at the Walt:

Thank you for being with me (aka my resurrection stone) while I have been far away trying to figure it all out the last two years. Thank you for accepting that this was something I need(ed) to do and not making me feel like a stranger when I returned. Thank you for  indulging late night/tipsy, facetime calls to learn about people, places, and things that you couldn’t possibly care less about. Thank you for letting me crash on your couches for way longer than social guidelines dictate during visits and visa problems. Thank you for seeking out the hard conversations because you knew I needed them. Thank you for always being willing to dance our problems away in various deserts in the moments I did see you. Thank you for making home irresistible even after I left in a hurry. Thank you for making our new home so warm and cozy and for letting me feel like a tourist in my home state. Thank you for showing me that I can be happy in SF. Thank you for being weird and hilarious (Hump Fest!) and beautiful and reminding me that I don’t have to wear black all the time. Again… so much more so little time. 

To the family and extended family (includes dogs):

I have a lot to say but will do so privately. I love you all more than you know. 

Thanks everyone. 25 has been a hell of a ride and I love you all for dragging me through.

KW

I’m coach Steve!

P.S. While we all complain about having to wear masks in SF, 58 people are confirmed dead with hundreds more missing and over 9000 houses destroyed, 300,000 people have been displaced.. This all with only 35% containment.  If possible, try and donate what you can to both the firefighting efforts and relief for those impacted.  I recommend the North Valley Foundation Camp Fire Relief FundThis fund will provide financial resources to organizations and agencies responding to those affected by the fires in Northern California. 1% of each donation will support the administration and distribution of the fund by NVCF. 

Various groups are also looking for volunteers and supplies. Here is the best summary I could find : https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/help-2/

Goodbye Israel

It has been a minute. As usual a lot has gone down and I apologize for my lack of proper care and maintenance.

Random highlight real of the last 4 months or so:

-Got Bells Palsy: Whole thing.. Really strange and is only just now starting to go away. Got a good sense for the Israeli healthcare system, who my best friends were, shock acupuncture, and eventually coming to terms with facing the world with half a face. Not the worst thing in the world but certainly a big adjustment and a scary time.

Ouch Ouch Ouch

 

-Last months in Tel Aviv. Full of infinite amazing adventures and good people and good trips and nostalgia

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-@KiraWeiss was in town for her internship. This was most excellent. Also the brother visited

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Bonus Bells Smile!

-World Cup in Tel Aviv. Paradise. 

-Moved to San Francisco: Wonderful home, wonderful neighborhood, old friends, new friends (I think I go to Tufts now)

-Quit job

-Outside Lands

-Funemployed time including weekday LA and  Harry Potter World visit <3<3<3

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-Finding a new job! TBD

Regardless I am missing Tel Aviv and everyone there dearly and it is not easy to adjust back. Such a different world and so much rapid growth and change while things here are comforting and familiar. Not bad.. just occasionally tough to relate or express. It’s like trying to explain a film to someone who has only known books. You can do it, but you really can’t DO it (not a Nike reference although good for them..) Anyways, I have been trying to summarize different places I have spent time in some sort of literary form and tried to capture the essence of Tel Aviv below(don’t judge this is a new medium for me 🙂 :

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Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is: Graffiti, hertzy Goldstar and cigarette smoke
Plans that happen after they happen
Everything with Tahina and knowing you are going broke

Endless Shabbat dinner, laughter
Warmth like a blanket, maybe that’s the wine
Drums of war temporarily dimmer, after
Talks, of space, love, duty and the nature of time

It’s divine inspired smoothies
A living room on the beach
Silly jokes about serious places
And a chaser Arak for each

Funk clubs that blur until sunrise
Stretched evenings in Yaffo, it’s Monday
Lima beans and sweet potato, the Eyal Shani way
“Ill be back, soon.” Words not lies.

———————————————————————————-

TALK SOON FRIENDS

 

MIDBURN ‘Israeli Burning Man’

24 Hours at Midburn

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Wake up to the thumping of some never-ending psy-trance set nearby that no pair of earplugs can escape. Dodge unfamiliar bodies that have decided to co-occupy your camp’s air conditioned yurt for the night. One of the advantages of living with Kibbutz kids; they can casually build a yurt(along with the rest of your camp).

Emerge into the day and try and figure out what time it is. Dust coats every inch of your body turning your sweat into little streams of mud running down your back. Try and change into clean clothes but resistance is futile. The dust will always win; better to embrace it and accept that a dust banana is the breakfast you deserve.

Despite the sweltering heat rendering you nearly immobile, you emerge from your tiny campsite at 1:00 on the  Midburn geographic clock.
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Your outfit is function first and fashion heavy. Priority one is always survival and to that end you rely on your face mask, and goggles or glasses. Still, the surrealist couture is fundamental and radical self-expression is the name of the game.

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A man passes wearing a 20 ft set of wings that flutter up and down as he walks. A girl follows in only body paint and a faintly pulsing pair of light-up rabbit ears.

Even though it is day 3, you still have trouble internalizing the effort that the bigger camps have gone through to build their temporary homes and the never-ending supply of accompanying art. A two story building full of hammocks with a slide from the top.

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A full bar and cafe complete with billiards and old arcade games.

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You wander into the first camp that has an untz untz untz vibe that intrigues you. ‘Malla-beats’ (named after popular Israeli dessert Malabi), and are greeted by a cleopatra-esque dancer with a mist fan which brings your first feeling of life for the day. Dance mindlessly to a weirdly funky trance beat that only Israel can make cool in 2018. Stroll to bar and present your cup for a shot of Arak. No money is to be exchanged; instead you give a lollipop in thanks. Later a host offers you a slice of watermelon, lunch for the day, food has no meaning past baseline survival here.

Continue to wander. The only time you know for sure is that it is still pre-sunset. You find yourself in a room full of giant teddy bears and lay down to relax. You are tired and having finally understood the concept of radical inclusion feel no misgivings about sleeping here for the next three hours.

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Wake up to a phone call and agree to meet a friend at Camp Bereshit for a drink and further dancing. This camp is themed after the first book of Genesis and every day is dedicated to a different aspect of creation.

The late afternoon dust storm is picking up. You stagger back to your camp to hydrate and try and escape the attack. The camp is all there lounging about, some just waking up, some heading to sleep. You relax.

As the sun starts to set the people begin to emerge out of the woodwork on the playa (center area of the clock) like post-hibernation animals. As the desert cools off , the dust starts to look and feel beautiful.

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The heaviness of the day starts to fade and you head to the pirate shit for the sunset set. The jubiliation in the air is infectious and even the most stoic Israelis are laughing and grooving as darkness starts to take over. This is the magic that is like nothing you have ever seen before.


Psy-Trance never stopped but takes on a new intensity now as the big stages start to open up.

Your ever-talented campmates have procured and oven and begin cooking pizza after pizza and calling everyone around to come join. A carnival mood sets in as everyone starts to really dress for the night. Survival no longer as pressing, the weird starts to set in. Some mix of rave, steampunk, cyberpunk and just plain weird dominates the look.

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As you look out on the playa a dizzying array of neon lights and art hits you from every direction. You see fellow burners covered in lights moving from installation to installation like little neon ants in the distance.

Your crew fully intoxicates and heads out. First to installations: A room where you can hear the secrets that people are anonymously recording into tiny microphones outside. A piano in a cone of neon tubes that lights up with each key played. An upside bowl on a pole in the air with a flame dancing across it. Some giant flowers that can be entered and sealed from within for couples or just those that want to relax. On and on and on you have never understood sensory overload until this.

A massive wooden rabbit effigy goes up in flames to the cheering of thousands of observers. The rest of the crowd is drawn over like a swarm of  moths. As each section falls the crowd lets out a collective howl. As you wander away you find yourself looking at a group of people watching some ceremony. It’s a wedding.

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You sit in a tree and watch not sure if you are meant to be there or not. Turns out you are.

Eventually the thumps become too hard to ignore and you join the throngs of dancers wandering from stage to stage. The trance music annihilates any sense of time and before you know it is light out again. You follow the migration to the ‘sunrise kingdom’ stage and continue. Eventually your body gives into the complete exhaustion you have brought upon it and you stagger back to camp. The yurt is full so you find your tent and collapse. Despite the continuous thumping, you fall asleep.

Repeat.

(I didn’t make this but am a big fan^)

Bonus: Cool article on trance culture here: http://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2016/09/psytrance-israel-feature

+ the only trance set I actually enjoy ever: https://soundcloud.com/gurairoy/dollyfest-4-house-set-mixed

 

Iran and Nukes and Stuff

On the Iran deal and Israeli psychology.

On May 12th 2018, it is absolutely inexcusable for any informed person to be a supporter of the US republican party, or the current administration. The sheer magnitude of the disaster they have created is hard to fathom. To put it in perspective; at this point it is pretty fair to say that you could pick a week at random of the Trump presidency, and there will have been more screw-ups, terrible decisions, ethical lapses, and blatant deception than in all eight years of the Obama administration. I say that with not an ounce of hyperbole. If you are still drinking the kool-aid than you are either uniformed, insulated in the right wing propaganda world (Fox News and Facebook), or you have some financial interest (deregulation), keeping you on the sinking ship. While I could write an encyclopedia on this particular topic, the only point I am trying to make here is that I have only contempt for the current US right-wing.

Conversely, one thing I have said to right-wing people in Israel (basically people outside Tel Aviv) is that while I fundamentally disagree with most of what you believe, I can definitely sympathize with your position. The history of the Jewish people and the history of Israel mean that you trust no-one, and will do whatever it takes to ensure your own survival. I get this and I understand why to a group of people who are surrounded by mortal enemies, a right wing narrative is comforting. I don’t even really fault people for electing a tough-talking fear-mongerer like Bibi whose flaws are forgotten in the heat of constant conflict. To be clear again, I still find the views and actions of the Israeli right-wing and government morally abhorrent and absolutely contrary to the common good, but I don’t hold the average Israeli in contempt for holding them.

That said, the recent events surrounding the Iran nuclear deal have illuminated part of why I find this country so damn frustrating. In my humble opinion, the US leaving the Iran nuclear deal is one of the worst single decisions we have made since I became conscious. Most of the world agrees with this this sentiment, with only the US alt-right and the state of Israel disagreeing. In my office, I have educated, sharp folks supporting Trump in this insane decision. Bibi has been against the agreement since the beginning, and thanks to the close and controlled relationship between Israeli government and media, the average person here has a negative impression of the deal. So in trying to understand what to me was an absurd point of view, I asked a bunch of co-workers why they were happy about Trump’s views. What follows is my summary of the main points Israelis are making, and why they make no sense:
(sources all at the bottom)

“It’s a bad deal”

This seems to be the Trump admin line of attack and is by far the most infuriating. The idea is that the deal does not achieve peace. Iran still can and is sponsoring terrorism in the region, testing and deploying ICBMs (which would carry a nuclear weapon if it existed), threatening Israel, and will still be able to get nukes in ten years when the deal expires. To the credit of those who espouse this view, it is basically true on all accounts. The problem is that it is not a proper criticism of the deal itself. It is incorrect to compare the deal we got with the best deal for the west and Israel. It is correct to compare the deal to the status quo before 2015 and in this the answer is clear. A world where Iran is blocked until 2026 from developing nuclear weapons is a better world for everyone. A world where international inspectors can get access to any suspected site in Iran is a good one. A world where we don’t have nuclear proliferation in the Middle East because Iran has a nuke is better for everyone.

Before this deal which took years to agree to, there was no deal at all. This idea that Trump and Bibi are now going to get some better deal now is a joke. Plus, even if Bibi and Trump woke up in the morning with legit ambitions for peace (unlikely), you have just completely squashed any moral authority the US has in the world to make agreements. We are now irreversibly going to be assumed to be negotiating in bad faith. The world has absolutely no reason to let the US take a leadership role and that is very bad for our national security. In every negotiation going forward, including the upcoming talks with North Korea, China, Russia, and the EU will play the critical leadership roles.

“Iran is not complying with the deal.”

This is the most easily disproven point. The International Atomic Energy Agency have filed continuous quarterly reports which all show Iran to be in compliance with the terms of the agreement. Furthermore, all members of the agreement (US, China, Russia, France, Germany, and the UK), all agree with this assessment. Just to reiterate, Trump’s own state department has certified compliance on all sides. Trump’s defense secretary James Mattis said “I’ve read it now three times … and I will say that it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat. So the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability” This means we are giving up the unprecedented ability to inspect and monitor every single Iran nuclear site and get access to other sites if we believe Iran to be cheating on the arrangement. Even Mossad agrees with this assessment.

“…but Bibi told us it we stole new information which shows they are cheating!”

The context here is that a few days before Trump was to make his decision, Bibi went on national television and gave a powerpoint presentation of 55,000 documents that he claims were stolen from Iran’s Atomic Energy vaults a few weeks ago and prove conclusively that Iran lied. Except that was all basically baloney. The documents are mainly from 1999-2003 and show information that was already known by all nations involved. No smoking gun is presented nor ay conclusive reason to pull out of the deal.

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Ignoring the shame of a world leader basically lying to his people in order to get a malleable American president to follow his agenda, the interesting question for me is why Israeli’s are not seeing through this like the rest of the world. The Israeli media was significantly less critical of this farce than the rest of the world, and from my (limited) conversations, the Israeli people seem to have bought it to some degree. They make this point and the other points above and when pushed on the illogical stance they have taken just devolve into whatabouttisms and strawmans. This was one particular example, but this is a toxic issue that seems to have hit every aspect of Israeli politics.

The summary of all of this is basically that Israel has me worried about the state of the world. The blatant disregard for the truth no matter how absurd the local narrative is, and the willingness to believe only Israeli media and sources extends to all types of people. When educated folks are making decisions from the gut, we should all be worried.

That’s all… Sorry not a fun post but sometimes I just need to vent.

http://www.politifact.com/georgia/statements/2017/jun/14/karen-handel/iran-complying-nuclear-deal-yes-small-hiccups/
http://thehill.com/policy/defense/385094-mattis-defends-iran-deal-as-trump-considers-withdrawal
https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-iaea-compliance-nuclear-deal-naval-propulsion/29057277.html
https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/04/netanyahu-iran-nuclear-deal/559250/