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First Draft – Theory induced blindness in Representative Democracy

Democracy is consistently advocated as the ultimate form of governance even though its shortcomings are obvious, it has almost universal acceptance and it seems that we can’t do better than that.

This situation strikes me a phenomenon of theory induced blindness of that  Kahneman talks about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. As an example, economits viewed human actors as rational (the theory) and even though in the real world everyone knows that people are people and do not act rationally all the time, economists ignored this basic fact for years (the induced blindness). Behavioural economics has emerged to fill in the gaps.

Really there’s nothing that stops us from moving from the representative form of government to more direct form of government using available technologies. Just like QA forums like stackoverflow.com and the best solutions to problems can bubble to the top.

We could actually vote on every policy and monitor the implementation of these policies in realtime. What stops us from making sure that the people who actually vote on a policy have taken the time to learn the basic facts about the subject matter just so we ensure people understand the choices they are making. This could be done by asking very basic questions that does not require supernormal intellect or memory in order not to restrict participation by the so-called experts. I do not think I deserve equal number of votes in deciding between cardio health policy alternatives with the noted Professor Frimpong Boateng so votes could be weighted depending on the knowledge of the subject matter.

It is increasingly a complex world. Technology is making the rate of change faster. Governance needs to evolve for us to be able to have a handle on this complexity.

An argument I can expect to hear is that this will limit governance to the educated. While valid to some extent, I believe it is better than the status quo where it is restricted to the political elite. At minimum, the constituency of the educated population is much larger than that of the current political elite. One could even argue that it creates an incentive for people to acquire education. The paradigm shift suggested here will require education up to at least high school to be universally accessible in deed not just words. It will also require literacy in computing to be a core part of this education (emphasis on practice).

Even with suggested intervention, there’s no doubt the system will be skewed. It’s not just providing resources that leads to quality education, in fact [citation needed] one of the key components quality education is educated parents. So the better your parents are educated, the more likely it is that you will have an even better education – intergenerational effect.But one should note that overtime, the system will tend to an equilibrium where the maximum number attainable educated population; it’s the real world so you are unlikely to get a perfect 100%.

PM Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Message 2012

This message is simply inspiring for any country especially Ghana. I think it captures the nature of the the current world (uncertainty) and how to handle it. Here are the highlights for me;

* Core values – meritocracy, multi-racialism (multi-tribalism?), financial Prudence
* Create opportunities for all – Nurturing and open environment
* Forward looking – where each generation improves on what they have inherited
* Keep able and enterprising citizens
* Welcome foreigners who will make the team stronger
* Good quality of life – Blue skies, open spaces …

PM Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Message 2012

Down with Malaria – Again!

Barely a month ago, I came down with malaria and lost 4 days of productivity. Given that I have Sickle Cell trait, I’m one of the more ‘fortunate’ ones to present less severe symptoms of the disease but that does not affect the rate of infection. So far, I’ve lost two days of productivity and missed part of my cousin’s wedding. In my crude estimation based on number of cases reported, Ghana alone loses almost a hundred million dollars to the disease each year – this does include the cost of diagnostic testing and the lost productivity.

So I began thinking about how I might reduce my infection rate and the first thing that came to mind was treated bed nets. I have used these a couple of times in the past – particularly in secondary school. Most people I know do not use them and have a repulsive attitude towards it. I would say the main reason for this is practicability. It’s sometimes too hot and I often work deep into the night at my desk. Well, for all it’s trouble, it reduces episodes of malaria by half.

Currently, the country’s main measure against malaria is case management (in practice). Have we forgotten that prevention is better than cure? By the way, case management is being thwarted increasingly by counterfeit drugs and even at optimal case management, we would still have a huge economic burden from the disease including loss of productivity. So case management as a dominant strategy, I’m afraid is not the way to go.

There is the issue of sanitation when it comes to malaria. Greater sanitation will yield a reduction in the population of mosquitoes but that also is not a silver bullet. Most complex problems do not have a silver bullet and that includes malaria.

I think a better strategy will be to give us a boost in the fight against malaria with Indoor Residual Spraying which has been proved to be effective many times over not only for prevention of the disease but also for its elimination. The controversy that surrounds this technique mostly has to do with the harmful effects of DDT insecticide. These fears have to do with the suggestions that high levels of DDT can have adverse effects on human health based on oral ingestion in rats and agricultural use. This is pitting a potentially smaller health problem with a real epidemic with very high mortality rate. Areas that have used DDT for malaria control have not had reports of significant effects on human health but rather the deaths of pelican birds (which resulted from agricultural use of the pesticide!). In fact, only sub-Saharan Africa has not had a DDT intervention and is the region with over 80 percent of malaria deaths. Contrary to what many believe,  DDT use is not banned worldwide. It is banned only in one country – USA, where they have already eliminated malaria with the chemical. IRS does not even have to use DDT. There are alternatives such as malathion and the other pyretheroids used in bed nets. There is a compelling case of using IRS combined with other strategies at Obuasi with impressive results.

Resistance of the malaria parasites is beginning to surface for the only viable drugs currently available. This makes it a more pressing matter to eliminate malaria in Ghana & Africa. Failing to do so coupled with zero treatment options will be apocalyptic. There’s no reason to wait out such fate.

Personally, I intend to get IRS with DDT or a pyretheroid and will be asking my doctor about Intermittent Preventive Treatment (IPT). I will also be giving bed nets another try. My goal – to have zero incidence of malaria for a year!

Positive Reinforcement, An Interesting Parallel Between Dog Training and Tennis Lessons

You have to communicate ‘the good’. This is because in most activities (other than vices), there are many, possibly infinite ways of doing it the wrong way.

From this dog trainer, it is far more productive to indicate what behavior you expect from your dog – which works! I only realized the pervasive shortage of positive reinforcement when I started training our dog and was concurrently learning to play tennis. As you might have guessed already, my tennis instructor was only giving me negative feedback. This was frustrating as I wanted to know how to swing, move and so on and  could not see my own actions with a good perspective. Perhaps the only time were knowing the wrong actions is when there’s been inaccurate communication about right behaviour.

How is your DSL?

Am I the only one experiencing really bad service from Vodafone? It seems to me that their cellular business is far more profitable than their broadband business judging by the penetration figures [0]. For this reason, they are naturally focused on their mobile offering.

Speaking to some technicians and marketing executives in the company, there is not a clear plan to link even their exchanges with fibre optic cables. In fact, degraded copper cables still remain some places including the Legon area.

It surely makes business sense for Vodafone to be focused on their cellular business. However, with the lion’s share of our existing Internet infrastructure under their control, I believe they are stifling the progress of software development in two ways. First, developers cannot get much done with current service levels – unless you are willing to pay an arm and a leg for top tier connections. Secondly, the market for web applications and content is tightly constrained by reliability and cost of Internet as it mars the experience and affects penetration. The company is essentially retarding the growth of the Internet in the Ghana.

Some may be optimistic about the situation due to the increasing competition in the sub-marine fibre cable space as I once did. The changes in this area was expected to force prices down but it appears that the market is highly imperfect – with a near monopoly that does not need to make money. With MainOne connectivity starting at $20,000 for 45Mbps the change that was anticipated has not arrived. I hope I am wrong but I do not think that GloOne would change the dynamics.

Looking at the gains in mobile broadband services in both speed and reliability, I am convinced that much of the problem lies within the transmission to the end user. Mobile broadband in 3G however has tighter constrains in capacity and speed than fixed broadband. Fourth Generation (4G) definitely has the potential to replace fixed broadband with speeds of up to 1Gbps [1]. Mobile broadband pricing actually compares well with the United Kingdom [2].

How would the the Internet landscape in Ghana change if Vodafone was to spin off its broadband business? Would this lead to better service levels and even a reduction in cost? Will Ghana & Africa leapfrog fixed broadband to 4G as we have analogously done with fixed telephony and mobile? While we still lack perfect competition, would it be prudent to advocate that government regulation is used to ensure better services?

[0] – http://www.google.com/publicdata?ds=wb-wdi&met=it_net_user&idim=country:GHA&dl=en&hl=en&q=internet+penetration+in+ghana

[1] – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4g

[2] – http://www.t-mobile.co.uk/shop/mobile-broadband/mbb-pay-upfront-3-months/usb-stick-610-3-months/

De-fragmenting my thoughts

After several months of desolating this blog, I have returned to it as a powerful means of organising my thoughts on various things. A whole lot has happened between my last post and this one. I participated in Google Summer of Code, working on Mifos, a Grameen Foundation project. I’ve continued to work with Grameen Foundation after summer of code and it has been nothing less than exciting.

Through Google Reader, which I explored in a previous post, I discovered the Nokia Open Innovation Africa summit and the call for submission of ideas for that conference. Without expecting much I entered a submission on career development services and this entry was one of the winning entries. This earned me the opportunity to travel to Naivasha, Kenya for the most stimulating three days of my life. Seriously. Over two-hundred  participants were hand-picked for the event. What could one expect? As for my previous post, Kenya Rocks, you can now change the title to Kenya Truly Rocks! A great deal is happening in that country.

By the time I returned to Ghana, my concept for career development services had been improved in several ways and I had networked with critical resources who can help realise the idea. Unfortunately, I have been swamped by various activities that leaves barely any time to pursue this development effort. However as I come close to completing my undergraduate programme and my final project, I can’t wait to finally start executing this idea.

What you don’t know that you don’t know – Discovering more …

How am I going to stay on top of the the flood of best practices in software development, project management and countless other issues and information that are being thrown out in the Web? This is the question that comes to mind each time I find something cool on the Web. Why didn’t I learn of this earlier, I ask myself. How do I stay on top of trends without suffering countless bouts of information overload?

This begins my search for tools that allow for discovery of high quality and relevant material. The Miro Internet TV software gives me some idea as of what I am looking for as well as mail lists. Miro organises video content into channels and allows users to subscribe to these channels. Once you are subscribed to a channel, you automatically get informed of new content in your channel with a summary which will allow you to judge whether to download and watch the content or not.

Another insight for this journey is a topic on the Mifos mail list on distributed source code management tools which included a link to Linus Torvald’s talk on Git at Google.  This was such an eye opener since I had been spending lots of time merging my branch of Apache Ofbiz with the main development branch. Not to mention the informative webcast from Jim Webber’s on Service Oriented Architecture [that works].

To begin with optimizing the way I discover stuff, looking at my previous experience, I would first have to;

  • Identify the topics that I am interested in
  • Find and subscribe to websites (ThoughtWorker, SoftwareCEO, etc) and channels (Miro, YouTube, etc) that are on top of my topics. I find Google Reader a nifty tool to organise such content into a single feed.
  • Optimise my social network Google Buzz, twitter and LinkedIn

Kenya rocks!

Interesting stuff happening in Nairobi, Kenya. from iHub to Nailab, I think the developer community there is really thriving and really productive through these technology incubators.
I hope they also take decentralization to heart and not concentrate efforts only in Nairobi. As in Accra, the capital is often choked and not much can be done in a day. So in Ghana for example, we need to foster the developer communities in Kumasi and other regions.
Think about g-ghana and BarCamp happening in the Prempeh Assembly Hall. Perhaps when the technology park in Ejisu by KNUST is completed.
I find the Zuku internet provider’s prices great. You get 512kbps for about Ghc 50 through wimax compared to Vodafone Ghana’s Ghc 65. What is even better is the 1mbps for about 85 cedis whilst you have to pay 185 cedis for that in Ghana. We definitely need stronger competition in the ISP space in Ghana.

Looking Inward

Reading Business week’s article on India’s jugaad it occurs to me that we probably have more of that in Ghana than most places. We are simply forced to do things innovatively because of resource constraints. Perhaps opportunities lie therein but we refuse to seek them saying “that is just the poor man’s way of getting things done”. However there is a real need for great value and at lower cost and that is why China is thriving. Of course there is a market for luxury goods but there is surely a large market for great value at a sensible price.

Heuristics for avoiding overload and achieving

For knowledge workers today (using computers of course), there are a million and one interesting things to do. Abounding examples include trying out a new web service, evaluating some cool looking software, reading the news, the analysis and background features, seeking out the latest management initiatives, playing a game, instant messaging …. it is a possibly endless list!

Here are some heuristics that I am trying to use to get myself out of the overload mode into the productive mode.

  1. The basics – set objective and tasks and meet their deadlines.
  2. Do time-tracking – record after every two hours what you’ve spent your time on. Your calendaring application should be of help.
  3. Set a limit on the depth through you click on the Internet. 2-3 is a good choice.
  4. Allocate a fixed amount of time to random browsing – ensure that you are also not missing out on discovering great stuff on the web.
  5. Learn discipline and continuously review your time expenditure.