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Surviving Cyclone Pam

[Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog.]

Supercyclone Pam, bringing winds gusting to more than 300 Kph, swept nearly two dozen of Vanuatu’s central and southern islands bare. The destruction is difficult to conceive of, harder still to express. Let one tiny example stand for all: A brand new trade school, constructed to the state of the art, razed after only ten days in operation. Behind it lie the shattered remnants of a giant banyan tree. These trees are integral to Tannese custom; because of their monumental size and durability. Indeed, each of the storied twelve nakamals (sacred gathering places) of Tanna is located under a banyan tree.

Both the ancient and the modern were swept away with equal ease by Pam’s unprecedented power.

A broken guitar lies among the ruins of a newly built trade school, destroyed when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. The school had been open for a mere ten days.

A broken guitar lies among the ruins of a newly built trade school, destroyed when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. The school had been open for a mere ten days.

To everyone’s surprise, even amazement, only five of the island’s nearly thirty thousand inhabitants perished. The story is the same on all of the worst hit islands: On Efate, with the highest population, just a handful. Two more from tiny Emae, which took a direct hit from the eye of the storm. The list goes on. In all, only eleven people have been confirmed killed, and four of those had been in hospital in serious condition prior to the cyclone.

Nobody can say for certain just yet why the death toll has been so remarkably low. There are likely a number of contributing factors. The first is that the Ni Vanuatu people have had 3000 years to prepare. Historically, Vanuatu has received an average of 1.5 cyclones per year for as long as we’ve been keeping records. Local dwellings are designed with eaves nearly reaching the ground in order to prevent the roof from being blown away. The bamboo walls and natangura-thatched roof are flexible and sufficiently porous to withstand even the strongest winds. Some people hid in purpose-built traditional cyclone shelters. These are tiny, half-subterranean shelters dug into a hillside, walled with tightly woven bamboo. They are cramped, dirty and wet, but they go a long way to ensuring survival.

Had this been a ‘normal’ cyclone, it’s doubtful whether it would have made the news at all. Continue reading

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The fourth estate in peril

Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog.
This week’s Post Courier debacle, in which a lurid front-page spread purporting to show Asian sex workers in a Port Moresby nightclub was shown to be false, is only the latest journalistic misstep of many across the Pacific islands. As far back as 2012, accusations of plagiarism have been levelled at the author of the article. The evidence in some of these cases is compelling.

In this particular case, the paper published a front-page correction the very next day, admitting that the writer had published the photos without knowing their actual provenance. The very same cover featured another couple of photos of Asian women with their eyes blacked out, ‘reluctantly supplied’, they said, by one of the sources of their stories on sex workers coming to work in Papua New Guinea.

While the Pacific Freedom Forum welcomed the prompt correction, social media response was less forgiving. A large number of commenters decried the entire week-long series, claiming that it was a transparent ploy to sell papers on the back of public prurience.

The readiness of media professionals throughout the Pacific islands to treat untested sources, hunches and even rumour as reportable is a phenomenon that needs to be recognised and addressed. It’s difficult to measure the civic importance of having reputable news services, but it’s fairly safe to say that fewer Pacific islanders than ever see their media organisations as truly authoritative.

Complaints are rampant in social media and elsewhere about the ability of media services to reliably and objectively report ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’ as one masthead famously stated. State-owned television and radio are determinedly non-confrontational. Even private-sector media are fighting what seems to be a rising tide of political and financial pressure.

It sure doesn’t help that elsewhere in the world there are fewer and fewer examples to hold up for emulation. Continue reading

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Poettering Uber Alles

The wisdom of Dear Leader Lennart Poettering:

The design of systemd as a suite of integrated tools that each have their individual purposes but when used together are more than just the sum of the parts, that’s pretty much at the core of UNIX philosophy.

I would say that he misunderstands the essence, the substance and possibly even the purpose of the UNIX philosophy… but I think he actually does understand. I think he’s simply being disingenuous, twisting the definition to meet his desires. It’s clear that this is a man who believes that he knows what’s good and what’s not.
Continue reading

Torrenting clichés live on for a reason

Freddie de Boer has a post up, decrying pro-torrenting ‘myths’ that need to die.

Down in the comments, he writes,

Many of you are dramatically underestimating the kind of resources that are necessary to make great artwork. Sgt Pepper could not have been made by dedicated amateurs. Even today, high-quality recording costs are far higher than people realize. Lawrence of Arabia could not be made by some kids with a GoPro and a dream. Nobody laboring alone in his bedroom could code Half-Life 2.

But Counter Strike absolutely WAS coded by a bunch of volunteers as a result of their own enthusiasm. Likewise Team Fortress.

Oh – and the Linux kernel, which drives most of the web today. And BSD Unix – the framework on which Mac OS X is built.

And pretty much all of deviantart.com. And a majority of the stuff on 500px.com. And a great deal of good writing.

Lawrence of Arabia could not be made by some kids with a GoPro, but that does nothing to diminish what a couple of kids with a GoPro can do. And Sergeant Pepper – oh, this is silly and childish. Freddie, your proposition is that Great Art is not possible without significant resources being brought to bear. The real proposition is that some kinds of creative endeavour (the majority of which are decidedly not great) are not possible without significant resources. Continue reading

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Snowdrift? Toboggan hill!

Paul Chiusano, in the course of reinventing the world, writes:

One of my personal pet causes is developing a better alternative to HTML/CSS. This is a case where the metaphorical snowdrift is R&D on new platforms (which could at least initially compile to HTML/CSS).

The problem with the ‘snowdrift’ here, to abuse the metaphor, has nothing to do with IP law, and nothing to do with lack of innovation. It has everything to do with the size of the drift. You don’t have any choice but to wait for someone else to come along to help shovel. But the author is trying to say, If everyone doesn’t shovel, nobody gets out. And that’s not always true.

A quick reminder: When HTML first came out, the very first thing virtually every proprietary software vendor of note did was create their own, better alternative. Web design tools were so common, it became difficult to market oneself as someone who actually knew how to create HTML by hand. And each of those tools used proprietary extensions and/or unique behaviour in an attempt to provide a ‘better alternative’ to consumers – and of course to corner the market on web development, and therefore on the web itself.
Continue reading

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The ‘Digital Divide’ is a chasm

The ITU, bless their binary souls, just released the 2014 Measuring the Information Society report. The headline is – or should be – that something is very wrong on the internet, and we need to fix it.

I used to scoff at the phrase ‘digital divide’, which was used to soft-peddle the glaring technological inequalities between rich and poor nations. I still don’t like it, but for different reasons. I used to think that the technological gap between the developed and developing was evanescent, a transient blip which would rapidly disappear as wireless broadband technologies proved viable in even the most marginal markets.

Not so. At least, not so far. The 2014 ITU report shows a widening gap between rich and poor, in spite of the fact that growth in the global digital economy is driven entirely by the developing world.

Let’s look at who’s got access to broadband on their mobile:

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The disparity between the richest and the poorest countries is glaring, and unlikely to right itself. The developed world and the Least Developed Countries are on completely different trajectories. Even the developing countries are showing a rate of increase that would require radical change even to come close to the level of ubiquity seen in Europe and North America. Continue reading

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Systemd and The Unix Way

What follows is not for the benefit of systemd supporters. I write it because somewhere out there In the wilds of the internet, there might still be some youngster with a clue who needs to get this:

Systemd, OOP and a number of other technologies have been touted by people who have a curious mixture of cleverness and a lack of imagination or experience (something altogether too common in the world of software development). They claim that because they have solved a problem, they are therefore entitled to use the same approach to Solve All Problems Ever. So instead of exercising a little humility and moving their work ahead in a way that’s accepting of other approaches, they charge in full speed, damn the torpedoes and devil take the hindmost.

It happened with Microsoft and ActiveX. It happened with Object Oriented Programming languages – most notably with Java: there was a time when it was hard to find work programming in anything else. It happened, to a smaller degree, with design patterns. You can find numerous other examples if you search for them.

It’s happening again today with systemd. Continue reading

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There’s no app for that

Putting responsibility for our children in the hands of governments and corporations is just wrong

In recent years, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has been drumming up support for surveillance and censorship. They do it under the guise of creating measures to protect children and stop what they call cyber-crime. But what they advocate is nothing short of a toolkit fit for a police state.

I’d love to be able to say that I’m overstating the case. I’d love to find out that the technologies and legal levers that are being proffered by the ITU and various other agencies were never used for anything other than good. I’d also love a pony.

I’ve written before about the fractious relationship between the ITU and the technical organisations that actually do run the internet. I’ve written about how Pacific island governments and societies can come to terms with surveillance and censorship. I’ve even talked about this push by the ITU, extending across the developing world, to drum up support for its vision of the internet as a fenced and orderly place. More to the point, I’ve already written about where it leads.

But just last week, at a conference discussing the protection of critical IT infrastructure, I watched a presenter describing the creation of a computer incident response team (in ITU jargon, a CIRT) based on a model adopted by some of the least free countries in the world. This was presented without apology or explanation. Continue reading

THE WAIT – Healthcare in Vanuatu

A young woman shows off her chest X ray after a visit to the Peace Ark, a Chinese PLA Navy hospital ship. photo: Graham Crumb - imagicity.com

A young woman shows off her chest X ray after a visit to the Peace Ark, a Chinese PLA Navy hospital ship. photo: Graham Crumb – imagicity.com

The failures of Vanuatu’s health services are felt by everyone. But these shortcomings are particularly vivid to me today. As I was working on PiPP’s latest multimedia story on the state of health care in Vanuatu, I buried two friends on consecutive days. I have not the slightest doubt that they would both be alive today if they lived in Auckland or Sydney.

Danny Tetiano and Dr John Otto Ondawame were both influential, important people. One was a gifted musician, mentor to a generation of aspiring artists in Vanuatu. The other, of course, was one of the leaders of the West Papuan independence movement. In addition to the loss to society and to the world, both left grieving widows and young children behind.

To put it plainly, Danny and John died of poverty, not disease.

The cost to society is immense. One of the very reasons West Papuans have struggled to organise themselves and become a well-defined locus of international attention is the lack of well-educated, dynamic people, skilled in persuasion and diplomacy. They lack entrepreneurs to improve prosperity, education to create the entrepreneurs, and health services to preserve and protect them.

The lack of basic services is characterised as systemic abuse when Indonesian government policy is concerned. But how should we characterise such neglect in Vanuatu?

Health services in Vanuatu – there is no health system, per se – are rudimentary at best. Post-operative infection rates make even the most run-of-the-mill surgery a cause for concern. One long-time acquaintance died following the amputation of his big toe. A well-intentioned (but unforgivably vague) blog post by the UNDP raises the point that life expectancy in Vanuatu and other Pacific island countries is ten years less than in Australia and New Zealand.

Ten years, and three hours flight away.

The difference is quantum. It’s at once tantalisingly close and achingly distant. But the bitter lesson that I’ve learned this week, and repeatedly in the past, is that the cost of inactivity is not an abstract one. Death impacts directly on a nation’s ability to grow, to gain experience, and ultimately to survive.

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Honour is respectable

Vanuatu’s first prime minister Walter Lini famously said, ‘respect is honourable.’ The phrase is often quoted today by people from all walks of life as a means of recalling the best aspects of Vanuatu society: its use of deference and respect as an integral part of community peace-making. Modern influences have transformed kastom in many ways, but respect is still held tightly to the national breast.

We might do well, though, to turn the phrase around.

It must be said that traditional life in Vanuatu is indeed happy… for those men who survive their first five years in comparatively good health. And some women may be content living within the confines of their village roles. But like it or not, that life is no longer available to a growing number of people.

If we include people living in peri-urban areas around Port Vila and Santo, census figures show nearly a 10% change in the urban/rural population ratio between 1999 and the last complete census in 2009. Much of this change is composed of the so-called youth bulge – a growing number of young adults with limited opportunities both in the modern economy and in traditional life.

These are not the only source of discontent. Household dynamics are increasingly complex. Domestic relationships, both formal and informal, are more fluid –and generally more violent– than they were. This is largely a result of the clash between the de facto status of women as chattels, and women’s increased economic independence, and thence mobility, in the modern economy.

Men and women both are no longer subject to the social and geographical confines of village life. Mobility and distance undermine traditions that have sustained Melanesian societies since time immemorial. The coercive or corrective power of community scrutiny recedes once it becomes possible to evade the villagers’ gaze. The village’s role as collective conscience has been eroded and, to date, nothing has arisen to take its place.

At all levels of society, the dwindling power of social pressure leads to behaviour that once might have been unconscionable. Legal and regulatory checks go unheeded and national institutions teeter on the edge of dissolution.

But kastom is a resilient term. It has survived thousands of years of challenge and changing circumstance; it has managed to remain a viable idea throughout even the last two centuries of transformation. There is no reason to believe it won’t survive the changing economic and social conditions of the present day. Continue reading