We are not supposed to be here

So… today is the 57th anniversary of Ghana’s independence, and as a Ghanaian citizen, it is a day I always approach with very mixed feelings. I’ve been thinking about how to write some version of this piece for a while. I’ve always found some excuse not to write it though, so while it is late this year, here it is.

I’m going to start with the video of Kwame Nkrumah’s speech at midnight on independence day in 1957. Growing up, I saw this on TV and heard it on the radio so many times I can probably quote it by heart. Today is a good day to discuss the wider context of what Nkrumah meant when he spoke about the new African who would show the world that the black man could manage his own affairs. Quite simply, we were not supposed to make it.

The argument against giving African countries their freedom, outside of the blatantly economic ones, started and ended with the idea that we couldn’t run our own countries. We weren’t smart enough. We lacked the strength of character. We would steal from each other. We would descend into some kind of tribal free-for all and massacre each other over the the littlest things. We obviously couldn’t do things like vote peacefully, organize governments, open and run universities, live peacefully with each other and show kindness to our neighbours. We were capable of little more than the worst excesses you would expect from a people who were not quite human. Basically, the entire continent is supposed to be Mad Max meets the worst excesses of all the civil wars on it combined. That’s not quite how things have happened.

I’m not saying that things are perfect. Ghana has gone through waves of spectacular mismanagement and outright thievery, but we’ve also gone from being scared to speak out against our leaders to doing so openly. We still don’t treat each other with the dignity we should more often than not, but there are lots of people who show extraordinary grace and selflessness to each other on a daily basis. Children die who should be alive, but a lot fewer than used to. Adults die who should be alive, but again, a lot fewer than used to. We don’t educate enough of our kids, and too many are stuck in substandard schools, but we do have more schools and we have our own universities. We train our own doctors, even if we then underfund them. We train our own scientists, our own writers, our own lawyers, our own engineers, our own artists. Not enough of them, but more than we would have had otherwise. We are far below our potential, but it is a much greater potential than anyone expected of us. If we judged ourselves by the standards of what was expected of us, we’d already be a success. We don’t though, because under all the self-deprecation and self-loathing, we know we are capable of more.

We aren’t supposed to be here, I’m not supposed to be here. And sometimes it helps to take a step away from all that feels wrong and terrible to appreciate all that is right. The mess will still be there tomorrow.

Happy Birthday Ghana.

The ‘Open XML formats’ seminar

I guess I should go into how I ended up talking about XML document formats and openness. On Monday the 13th I got into work(well, technically my contract is over and I’m finishing up some things I felt bad about leaving unfinished) and was called in by my (ex) boss who told me that she had received an invitation from the Ghana Standards board on the previous Friday to a seminar they were holding with Microsoft for all IT stakeholders in the country on ‘Open XML formats. This was of course basically an attempt to lobby our standards board to vote for ISO certification on OOXML. The fact that they started out trying to misname what they were doing didn’t make me particularly at ease.

By the time I was briefed, the job had already sent a letter back to the Standards board outlining the fact that there were issues other countries were raising about OOXML and pointing out that a discussion on open XML formats would be better served if Microsoft wasn’t the only group making presentations. Since they were more diplomatic than I have a tendency to be, they did not also mention the perception of conflict of interest the Board was inviting by co-hosting the seminar. I was told to read up as much as I could for the seminar, which was to be the next day.

Tuesday. I showed up a little late to the seminar, which was being held at the African Regency hotel. It was attended by

  • softTRIBE (a local software company)
  • AITI-KACE (the job)
  • Ministry of Communications
  • Ghana ICT Directorate (Their chairman headed the seminar)
  • The University of Ghana
  • Atlantic Computers (Mostly a vendor)
  • K-NET (ISP)
  • IPMC (IT school and vendor)
  • 3 Microsoft representatives, Atilla, Chineye  and Andreas Eberht (Microsoft Regional Technology Officer for the EU

From the beginning it was obvious that the Standards Board had become aware of the possibility of appearing dodgy and so clarified its position in a speech read by its representative that they were not there to take sides but instead to listen to the stakeholders (the above companies + others who didn’t show up) and carry their vote to the ISO. This was followed by a speech from the GICTED boss talking about the objectives of his outfit. Then we got to the actual talks.

    The three representatives went one at a time, Chineye first, then Atilla, then Andre. Chineye gave a fairly uninteresting talk about the benefits of OOXML to Ghana that managed to say almost nothing about OOXML but try to flatter us. The CEO of SoftTribe spoke briefly about the financial reasons for supporting OOXML and actually unwittingly made a great point. Atilla talked a bit more about OOXML, mostly using all the arguments that led to the creation of ODF in the first place, but pretending those arguments were from Microsoft side. The amusement it gave me listening to him explain about the evils of closed formats was worth the entire day.

    Andre was the real big gun though. Apparently he makes a living lobbying the EU for MS, so he’s very good at framing the argument to suit his company. Purely from a sophistry point of view, he was impressive. His presentation was split into several parts, most of which attempted to again make arguments that work just as well for ODF, but with more skill and finesse. There was nothing in there you won’t find by looking at the microsoft blogs on OOXML. Well, there was also a section on the advantages of XML based formats that separates content from formatting. Obviously he didn’t mention that this applies not only to OOXML, but to any kind of XML based document type, and also to LaTeX. Then we got lunch before the Q&A session.

    sidenote: setting all the talks before a big lunch and then getting back a bunch of satisfied,semi-sleepy people to ask questions to was a beautiful stroke, or maybe I’m just cynical.

    So, the Q&A section rolls around, I asked some questions and an attempt was made by the MS reps to paint me as ill-informed and obtaining all my information from blogs on the internet run by anti-Microsoft fundamentalists. Oh, and of course IBM was mentioned as the prime company lobbying everyone and providing them with groundless reasons to vote against OOXML. Then came the best tactic of the day. Dismissing my questions as ‘too academic’ and ‘concerned with the needs of other nations, not Ghana’. After I stopped being annoyed at the attempt to shut me down, I was highly amused.

    Anyway, at the end of the thing no real conclusions were reached as most of the people there had not read the specification, so another meeting was scheduled for Monday the 27th. That will be my next post.


    • A lot of IT stakeholders in Ghana are very connected to Microsoft it seems. I suspect I know why, but that is also a topic requiring its own post. It does taint the process though
    • After the seminar there was a storm of calls and emails to the Standards Board from IBM and a bunch of other sources. I didn’t have anything to do with that did I?
    • Microsoft’s people are slick , Especially Andreas, then again I get the feeling that defending Microsoft in the EU takes a substantial amount of sophistry. And that I can honestly respect.
    • To be fair to the standards board, they have made every effort to be neutral and keep the discussion purely on the merits of the proposal at hand. The problems with the process aren’t their faults really, the nature of our IT industry makes it easy to subvert

    More on this later

    A thousand pardons for my lateness

    I was supposed to have up a report on the OOXML seminar that happened last week. Sadly I have been spending all my time preparing for the follow up meeting which happens in an hour or so.

    This one will be more interesting. We have representatives from Microsoft, IBM and apparently a professor at the University of The Western Cape in South Africa. All the relevant stakeholders will also be there to listen and possibly vote. We are however going to require full disclosure of any affiliations they have with Microsoft before the meeting.

    Just so you know, the way it works is the standards board assembles a list of relevant stakeholders, sends them the specification and then lets them vote on it. I’ll have the list for you after the meeting. I should also point out that the standards board is doing their best to appear neutral because of a ton of pressure from Microsoft and its partners on one side, and IBM, civil society groups and apparently foreign standards boards on the other. It has also been strongly implied to me that they do not want to be seen as an impediment to a rumoured deal between Microsoft and the Government of Ghana. That can be bad for careers.

    Also worth noting, some of the Microsoft people who came here also went to Ethiopia to make the same pitch. This is definitely part of a concerted effort to lobby African governments. And to be perfectly honest it annoys the hell out of me.

    I’ll be there to speak and take notes on the event, so you’ll get both reports later this week. Maybe tonight if I have the energy to write them up.

    This should be fun

    Apparently tomorrow the Ghana Standards Board is jointly hosting a seminar with Microsoft about their OOXML document standard which the Standards Board will be voting on as an ISO spec.

    I’m going to leave alone the whole issue of how it looks for the standards board, which has a vote on the issue, to be hosting an MS sponsored event because I get to go. And I get to ask the MS presenter questions. And this being Ghana, I’m willing to bet money they do not expect an informed audience.

    *slightly feral grin, hears ‘Jaws’ theme playing faintly in the background*

    This should be FUN!

    I met Kofi Annan

    Yup, I stood face to face with the most famous(and at one time most powerful) Ghanaian in the world. Since The Job exists basically because of him, I guess he decided to come around and see what we do there.

    This of course was a huge deal and the staff were basically warned to be on our best behaviour or else. I got to shake his hand and explain to him what the Scientific Computing wing does. And I somehow managed not to come across as a blabbering idiot (I hope)

    Here’s the thing, I’m usually not the starstruck type. You can put me 5 feet away from someone who is supposed to be important and I usually will not care. Not this time. This time it was someone I actually respect. I was hugely nervous when he showed up. I think I still came off as halfway smart though.

    Anyway, that made my week. Hence it makes it on here.

    sidenote: sorry about the absence people. Regular programming has now resumed. More cool news to follow

    Other thoughts/Questions

    1. I need a good Ruby IDE for both windows and Linux. Right now we use Freeride, which seems to be in neither the Debian or Ubuntu repositories. Plus its a bit on the clumsy side and seems to crash quite a bit, although I suspect we are using an older version. Still, suggestions are welcome.
    2. A good cheap Ruby book would also be useful. My suggestion has been that we write one covering the basics of the language with a ton of examples and problems for the Institute to freely distribute.
    3. The difference in power draw between CRT and LCT screens needs to be seriously considered when purchasing time comes around, a point I attempted to make about the Intel Iadvance systems when we first saw them(more on this later). While CRT’s are cheaper, the difference in power draw should matter a lot in a country which is beginning to subsidize power saving light bulbs and has huge energy issues right now.

    My impressions of the I2CAP northern regionals

    For those of you unfamiliar with I2CAP, it is a secondary school level programming competition. We train the teachers who go back and train the students. Then we have regional competitions and finally the nationals. At the moment their tutors are taught in the Ruby programming language. Prior links here and here

    This competition was held on Saturday in Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region. That’s about 400 odd miles from Accra, where I work. Now owing to nature of Ghana’s road networks that is about a 12+ hour drive. Hence, since we have private sponsors with somewhat deep pockets and that drive is supremely uncomfortable, we flew on Friday afternoon.

    Unfortunately for us we got a pilot who has probably seen “Top Gun” a few too many times and insisted on flying the plane in ways I am fairly sure small commercial aircraft are not meant to be flown. The only thing holding back my irritation at that were the 10 or so missionaries from Ohio on the plane presumably here to show my predominantly Muslim northern brethren the error of their ways and bring them to the light. Or,more likely judging by their inability to shut up at any point in a 1 hour flight, talk them all to death.

    Once we actually landed though, things got better. We all checked into our hotel and then went off to the Tamale Islamic Secondary school to look at their lab and set things up for the competition. Luckily for us they have a well equipped lab with about 35-40 working machines and a great computer teacher. It was also very obvious during the setup process that they had been practising hard for the competition. There wasn’t a machine I saw without a lot of Ruby code on it.

    After setup we checked in on the students from the other regions(the northern regions are relatively large and have fairly crappy roads, meaning that most of the schools from the Upper East and Upper West regions came in a day early and stayed overnight in a hostel, all at our sponsors expense) and then went back to the hotel, got some food and then dispersed. I went to bed early, though what I really should have done was go out and see Tamale at night. Its a very different kind of city from Accra. With a surprising number of expats doing NGO work too.

    Competition day: We woke up, rolled down to the school and discovered that the electricity corporation had been nice enough to turn off the power of the entire region. Hence, we had to go looking for a generator. The first one we found was powerful enough to handle the 22 computers we needed working, but not their CRT’s. Hence, we went looking for a bigger one.

    While all this was going on, a co-worker brilliantly kept the kids entertained with riddles and brain teasers. Interestingly enough the two schools who answered most of the questions were the same two who won for the Upper East and Upper West Regions.

    Finally we got every machine powered using two generators and got the competition going. 3 hours of kids solving problems in Ruby and us going around helping out as much as we could.

    The host school’s team. Remember this is an Islamic school in a predominantly Muslim part of the country

    Another of the winning teams

    Working hard

    Another of the winning teams

    Then we got to judge their work. Generally the teams that did the best also tended to be the teams who had practiced the hardest and had the most elegantly written code. Some of it was seriously impressive considering how little training their teachers got

    As usual, this was fun and refreshing. The schools need more support than they currently get from the government by far but they are doing a lot with what they have and I suspect the nationals will be seriously competitive. Still, I’d rather not have to hear stories of high performing schools only doing well because a teacher brought in his 3 year old laptop and trained his kids on it.

    Still, the sights made me happy.