My Message To Zipcar Customer Support

Note: I’m posting this for entertainment value only, and not to get anything more than Zipcar. Despite this experience, it’s worked for me in the past - so I hope I can get it to work again. But I think this is pretty funny - and it won’t do any more damage to Zipcar than the stuff that’s already out there - so I’ll post it.

Another Note: I should post more about the better experiences in life.. but this was already written

The Message
I originally reserved the car from my apartment building garage at XYXYXYXYXYX, Brooklyn for a fun night out from 6pm to midnight.

I unexpectedly got an email saying that the reservation was moved a few blocks away to YZYZYZYZYZY lot. No Problem!

I got there at 6, and the attendants said that the car isn't there.

First call to Zipcar Customer Service: Confirmed that the previous renter is late, decided to wait. We'll give you a small credit an extra time.

Got a coffee... 6:30. Car still isn't there.

Second call to Zipcar: Ok, we'll give you a reservation in Park Slope. Oh wait that guy is late too! Ok on Henry Street.

So, we take a 15 minute uber ride to henry street. Zipcar app undoes my discount! Ok call #3 - they say the discount is coming.

Get there at 7. The car is not there! Call Uber [sic.. meant Zipcar] again.. sorry the car isn't at this location - would you like another Brooklyn location - or I can try to locate the car.

Car located! It's 5 blocks away, but you have to cross under a busy highway in an industrial zone. Run across that street!

Ok, takes a few minutes but we honk and honk and finally find the car at 7:30.

Ended up getting back at 1:45 am in some Random Part of Brooklyn! Was that really a good idea? Probably not. Wanted to get home at midnight, but got home past 2am instead because of the second Uber ride.

I posted my Uber stubbs below.. but I certify the above story is accurate. I think I deserve an extra discount - I'm not sure I should rely on Zipcar in the future after this.

Fixed Stickymap Today

Version 2 of the Google Maps API was deprecated back in 2010 - over 8 years ago! And yet for all that time, my creaking old website, remained functional.

I built Stickymap as an undergrad and during my first couple years out of school. In fact, I developed it further in 2008 during a multi-week leave from work similar to what I'm doing now! Stickymap was all about "sharing your neighborhood". It was developed in the 2000s - the era of web 2.0, wikis, universal broadband. Desktop and laptop computing reigned supreme. The idea was to have everyone share their locations on a map, and contribute to this great resource.

Many things have come after it - notably Foursquare - but I still love to look back on it, which is why I like to keep it up.

Well, a month or so ago it stopped worked. Google said "8 years is enough time - everyone has to get onto version 3 of the API by now". Why do they care? Well - they can charge you for version 3 for one thing. It's unclear how much I'll be charged - hopefully zero for a non-trafficked archive site.

The interesting part of today was going through a 12-year old javascript codebase - written by an amateur (me at the time) without any of the frameworks which exist today. Is this workable?

Turned out that I was able to figure out Google Maps v3 in a day. I breathed life back into the site. For now, you can explore the map and see what people posted in the past. Adding to the map and the local search feature will have to wait for another time.

I slipped in some Amazon affiliate ads - in case I get a lot of traffic and Google starts charging, I'm going to need a way to pay!

Cracking the last code: BYPPCVACMZQVYAP

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In my last podcast episode, my quick-and-dirty algorithm for cracking a bunch of substitution cyphers made good work of all the encoded messages it was given - all except for one.

This last message goes as follows:BYPPCVACMZQVYAP

I tried tackling it by hand to no avail - with the repeated letters in the 3rd and 4th position, I could guess that the first word is "HELLO" or something like that. But I couldn't make it fit with the rest of the message!

It's very difficult to crack substitution cyphers on small messages because they contain less information, and several different substitutions of letters can make sense.

For example, consider this four-letter substitution cypher:TBBO

The only information we have about this word is that it has 3 unique letters, with the two letters in the middle repeating. It could be LOOK, BOOK, BEEP, BOOM, ROOM, or any such word like that. In this case, there's no hope in pinning down the message directly, unless we could gain more information about the word in question.

For the 15 letter message above, I think there is hope. I'm going to try a couple of ways to get ahead of it, and I'll post this to the github for my project.

1) Improve the language model.

I noticed that for short messages, it can find other messages with the same substitution pattern with lower entropy. In other words, the language model doesn't necessarily pick out the best one due to the simplicity of our language models compared to real natural language. This isn't as much of a problem with larger texts because it has so much more information to go on in separating out "real" from "fake" English.

My first thought is to move from bag-of-words to a bigram model, and work out from there.

I should also keep track of several top messages, to make sure that the real message doesn't wind up in space 2 or 3.

2) Count every possibility.

In the other cases, it wasn't possible to check every possible letter-and-space substitution because that meant checking 27! possibilities. That's a big number!


That's around 10^28. I said on the show that it has "28 zeros" as a shorthand for this order of magnitude, but of course I realized that I misspoke since it's actually not 28 zeros but 28 digits. I think most people got the point!

Anyway, in the case above, only 9 unique letters are used: ABCMPQVYZ. This means that there are far fewer substitutions to check. After selecting on of the letters as the space, there are only 8 substitutions to make! Let's do the math on that:

27! / (27-8)! = 27! / 19! = 27 * 26 * 25 * 24 * 23 * 22 * 21 * 20= 89,513,424,000

At around 89 billion possibilities that no small iteration even for a computer. And no way I'm going spin up an Amazon cluster for this thing. BUT! This can be whittled down further with some educated guesses about which letters could arise, making exhaustive search reasonable.

If you crack this one before me, either email the show, or message me on Twitter. I'll give you a shout out in the next episode!

Impress your Friends by Finding the Best Places

Designing the algorithm for Foursquare’s venue ratings is one of the best things I’ve worked on in my career. I hear people tell me that if they want to go to a good place, they make a cutoff on our 1-10 scale, say 8.5, and limit their choices to the select few elite places.

To me that sounds a little strict, but the fact remains that the Foursquare venue ratings are a great way to tell the difference between a good spot and a bad spot, and to assess the overall quality of a restaurant or bar before you go. Stephanie Yang and I spent a lot of time ensuring that our ratings are the best in the business, and I’d put these up against any venue rating system out there in terms of quality and accuracy.

Have you ever wondered how we do it? Well, we don’t give away all the secrets, but Stephanie and I wrote a blog post for the Foursquare Engineering blog called Finding the Perfect 10 where we break down some of the methods we use around venue ratings.

The Eclipse Experience

In catching up on my long backlog of potential blog posts, I want to talk about my trip this summer to see the total solar eclipse.

I knew this eclipse was coming for years, but I didn’t actually make my travel plans until a few weeks before. That wasn’t the best idea as it turns out that millions of people were visiting the same small band that stretches coast to coast to see totality. But - I made it work. I booked some flights to Louisville, Kentucky, and planned to see the eclipse down in Nashville.

Getting to Kentucky was messy; the flight was cancelled. I almost left the airport resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to fly until the next day. At the last-minute, the American Airlines was able to book me a flight to Cincinnati, and from there I took an Uber to Louisville.

I had been proud of myself for coming up with the Louisville trick initially, but I had wondered whether the lack planning on my part was going to cause issues throughout the trip. Even my original shipment of eclipse glasses was cancelled and I had to rely on my second try with Amazon. Fortunately, the rest of the trip went smoothly.


For me living in New York City, it’s a treat to drive around with a rental car, particularly in a new and open area like in Kentucky and Tennessee. I enjoyed visiting the cities of Louisville, Bowling Green, and finally Nashville for the main event. As always, Foursquare directed me to the best places to see and eat. Louisville museums, Bowling Green shops and parks, and Nashville music were all great. Nashville got a little crowded with all the visitors, but if you’re willing to adjust and find backup plans it all works.


On the negative side was staying in Glasgow the night before. The hotels everywhere else had been booked far and wide. There’s really nothing there - and the bed I got wasn’t very comfortable. It was one of those cheap motels - but on that day they were charging a substantial premium. At least they had good wi-fi - I stayed up most of the night watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones - Beyond the Wall - and I was glued to my iPad. Particularly in that dragon fight beyond the wall at the end!


For many people, watching something like an eclipse isn’t worth it. It may just a natural phenomenon in the sky caused by the moon passing in front of the sun. But the event has a lot of historical and scientific significance. Ancient civilizations attached significance to this event - both positive and negative. Almost a hundred years ago in 1919, an eclipse was used to confirm Einstein’s theory of relativity. Because stars behind the sun are visible during a total eclipse, we can measure the effect of the sun’s gravity bending that light thus changing its position in the sky. Astronomers still gather data from eclipses to learn about the cosmos.

The eclipse itself - which I saw at Nashville’s Science Center - was a really cool communal experience. It started out as a really hot day, and as the more covered more and more of the sun it became cooler and cooler. The sun’s reflection on the ground - which appear through the leaves - become crescent-shaped (see picture). Finally, when all the light is blocked, you see what looks like a 360-degree sunset. It becomes dusk - and the crickets started coming out and chirping in the early afternoon! For a few minutes - everyone stopped an appreciated the view and the natural wonder that we had the privilege of catching firsthand.


I experience everything except one part. At the last-minute, a cloud passed over and I wasn’t able to see the moon-sun in totality. Fortunately, there’s another one nearby in 2024. Maybe I can plan that one a little further in advance!

Watch this Space in 2018

As the year wraps up, I just wanted to let you all know that I am planning a really exciting new project for 2018 that is going to take my "content-creation" to the next level. If you like to hear about probability, travel, technology, and all the topics I discuss - this will be something to look forward to!

I know that's cryptic - but I wanted to tease it out before the new year. In addition, I've taken 2 really fascinating trips this year that I wanted to blog about. The first was my trip to Kentucky and Tennessee to see the eclipse, and the other was my trip to the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation to do some volunteer work in that community. I was heavily involved in planning the latter which meant that this blog was a bit neglected, but I hope to give a full report on it soon!

I have a whole bunch of posts lined up too - and at Foursquare I've been shopping some talks with the "Data" crew that I may want to share publicly.

But for tonight - I'm going to go out, celebrate, and possibly have my yearly slice at Koronet Pizza. Judging from the jackets, it clearly wasn't as cold 3 years ago as it was tonight.Happy New Year everyone!


The Idea of Subjective Probability

I've been deep in Bayesian analysis recently, and I want to discuss some of the philosophical foundations.

The background here is that there are roughly two camps of statistical thought: the Frequentists and the Bayesians.  They represent very different ways of thinking about the world.  I fall squarely on the Bayesian side. The purpose of this post isn't to construct some grand argument. I just want to introduce a simple idea: Subjective Probability.

Just like the world of statistics is divided between the Frequentists and the Bayesians, the interpretation of probability is divided into objective and subjective. Objective probability is associated with the frequentists and subjective with the Bayesians.

The prime example of objective probability is a coin flip. Suppose that this is a fair coin and it produces heads on half of all flips. It is an objective property of the coin that it produces heads one out of every 2 times.

Let's look at another example: a deck of cards. A standard deck is weighted to produce a heart a quarter of the time, and to produce a picture card 3/13ths of the time. Again, it's helpful to think of the deck as yielding an objective probability - but this way of thinking is limiting.

For example, suppose you have a deck of cards on the table and you again want to assign a probability of seeing a picture card. You know that it's 3/13, but you keep staring at the top card in that deck. You see the back of that card. You know it's either a picture or it's not. "What are you?" you say. As soon as you turn over that card, the probability either goes to 0 (it's not a picture) or it goes to 1 (it is a picture).

What if you shuffled the deck and you happened to get a peak at the card on the bottom? You'd then change your expectations of what the top card is going to be. What if you caught a glimpse of that card, but you're not exactly sure?

The probability now isn't some inherent property of the deck, it's a number in your mind that represents your expectations of the top card being a picture card. This number can take into account the inherent properties of the deck of course, but it can also take into account any other information you have as well as your experience.  For example, maybe you suspect the deck is rigged. You're belief about the deck might be different from someone else's.

Subject probability applies much better in real-world forecasting situations. Let's say you want to assign a probability to a particular candidate winning an election. In the end, they'll either win or they'll lose - but the probability you assign is an expectation of that event. You don't need to be well informed to have a subjective expectation - but you want to set yourself up to have more accurate expectations as you gather more information.

Sometimes we assign binary expectations to an event. For example, if I am absolutely sure something will occur I will assign it a 1. If I believe it is impossible, I'll assign it a 0. And then I make decisions based on that belief.But it turns out that we can make better decisions by hedging. If I see on my phone that there's a 30% chance of rain, maybe I won't bring my umbrella but I'll wear clothes that I don't mind getting wet.

What does it mean to have a degree-of-belief of 30% rain? It's not like we're living in a frequentist world where that particular day can be repeated over and over again to get a fraction. This is a difficult concept to define, but another way to think about it is a ratio of expectations. If there's a 30% chance of rain, that means that there's a 70% chance of no-rain, and the ratio of expectations is 3:7. It's related to the amount of risk we're willing to take on a certain outcome.

When the event finally occurs, we can quantify how surprising that event was by using logarithms on the assigned probability of that event. For the example above, if it rains the surprise is -ln(0.3), or roughly 1.2. If it doesn't rain, it's -ln(0.7) or roughly 0.35.

Just because you're very surprised doesn't mean you were wrong to assign the probabilities that you did. It could be that your forecasting was really good given the information at hand, and a rare event occurred. But it's generally true that if you are surprised less often after adjusting your methods for assigning probabilities, your new methods are probably better. In complex systems, there's no optimal method - you can always add more data and computation. In simple games, there's usually an optimal - and these can be thought of as objective probabilities.

Anyone can assign a subject probability to an event. You'll often hear in casual conversations remarks like "there's a 20% chance we'll be on time". These probabilistic assignments are often made before any thought has been put into then. If you want to assign better probabilities, a good start is to follow some basic logic. For example, if X always leads to Y, the probability of Y must be greater than or equal to X. There's also the indifference principle: if you have no information distinguishing two mutually exclusive events, then you should assign them equal probabilities.

And finally, there's Bayes rule. This tell us how to update our beliefs when we are exposed to new information. This most important rule is how the idea of subjective probability gives rise to Bayesian inference.

I actually witnessed SQL Injection

SQL injection is one of those hacks you can do on websites with really bad security practices. It can occur whenever your database query includes user input. If the user puts something you don't expect, they can alter the database in ways that you don't expect.

A funny example - which is kind of famous in engineering circles - is given in the webcomic XKCD.

Now about 10 years ago, I coded up a site called Stickymap. It was a local search where users can post locations in their neighborhood that are interesting and leave description. It was coded in PHP. You can secure PHP if you're careful but it's very difficult to do so. If you use PHP in your organization, there should be very specific rules around running SQL queries.



Well - one of my queries did not escape the user generated data. And, long story short someone changed every single venue name to "Bureau Veritas". Every single one. In the world.

After I investigated, I don't think that this was the intent. I think that the user was trying to add a (very spammy) description to a single venue that short-circuited the query so that the "WHERE clause" didn't make it in. For those of you who don't know, the WHERE clause in an UPDATE statement tells the database which items to update. If there is no WHERE clause, it'll update everything. Pretty insane, right?! It should probably update nothing.

I wonder how that person/spammer felt after they did this. Where they shocked? Did they move on to another site? Who knows!?

Fortunately, I had enough backup data to restore the Stickymap database while I was in San Francisco. Of course this always happens when I'm in San Francisco away from my home computer!!

Furthermore, I plugged up the security hole on the site. It's pretty cool that the security hole was left unexploited for 10 years and then all of a sudden was found. Who knows what problems we have lurking in our more critical systems? I like to hope those are more widely tested. You also want to see systems that hackers are constantly trying to exploit because that means that the owners of that system have been forced to plug the security holes. For example, I would rather trust software that's been cracked and plugged a few times in the past than software that's never been hacked but also never left out in the wild either.

Anyway - if someone out there wants to tell me there are more security holes in my site - let me know! But please try not to destroy Stickymap - it's my fun mid-2000s space on the internet and a reminder of how far we've come on local search.

And if you are the accidental culprit and you come forward, I'll either interview you for the blog, or I'll owe you a beer!

Marsbot and Chatbots




I spoke about Marsbot a number of times on this blog, but I wanted to write my own (short) piece on what we did and why we did it. The short of it is that Marsbot is a personal assistant that tells you about all the best places around you and what to do there. The secret sauce is that you don't have to put much into it to get use out of it - you just download the app on your phone (iPhone or Android) and it automatically discovers where you go and what you like. Sometimes it'll ask you a question or two, but it also infers a lot automatically.

To get more information about it from a product perspective, I recommend that you check out both Dennis Crowley's post on Medium and also from Foursquare (and Marsbot) Product Manager Marissa Chacko.  You can also check out my talk at Talkabot in Austin. We all worked together on this for a while and are pretty psyched about the results.

Especially last December, when we got on Mashable's 12 best Apps of the year. It's nice to be on the same list as Pokemon Go - even though we far fewer users.

Now that it's been out for a while, here are a few of my takeaways from the experience.

1) Context is everything. Discoverability in the bot space isn't going to be like discoverability in the app space. There probably won't be a "bot store" and even if there is, it'll be very difficult to break through like the App stores. The winners are going to have to stand out and learn something very specific about users to help them complete a task (or have fun). Foursquare now has the Pilgrim SDK to allow other apps (and in the future hopefully bot platforms) to have the same superpowers that Marsbot has.

2) Natural Language Understanding (NLU) is the ability for a computer to understand human input. When it comes to bots, sophisticated NLU doesn't mean much unless the backend code can actually act on that understanding. For example, suppose you text Marsbot to say that the recommendation is "too far". An NLU system that gets that is only worth it if there's a backend module where Marsbot can give a closer recommendation. (There is by the way)! Therefore when it comes to bot design, I think the thing to focus on is what actions you want the bot to be able to take and expand on those. The NLU can be heuristic-based at first, and one day can be replaced by a sophisticated AI system only after a wide variety of actions are coded in the system.

3) I'm really into the conversational aspect of this. The hook for Marsbot is that it talks to you, not the other way around - but many of our users talk to Marsbot and seem to try to form a friendship with it. I imagine a seamless conversation where you can object to Marsbot's recommendations (for both places and menu items) with reasons until it comes up with a solution. I mentioned this in my talk in Austin, and some of it is implements (too far, too expensive) but Marsbot doesn't understand more than 1 command at a time. It would take a bit of work to make a fully-fleshed out human-like conversation working.

4) Marketing these bots and getting them to capture the public imagination is hard. Marsbot was lauded in the tech press, but the user numbers remain small. And even if you can build a bot with very large user numbers, how do you transition from being a fun curiosity to an indispensable tool that people rely on? I think a lot of bot-makers are doing some interesting things in the enterprise space where they can sell their technology to organizations. For the individual consumer space, the secret to the bot-hit is still elusive, but may be cracked someday!

5) You haven't heard the last of this technology from Foursquare. I think that our Pilgrim SDK will power bots like Marsbot, and our NLP + recommendation powers will continue to grow. If you're in the US, download Marsbot on your iPhone or Android device, and let me know how it goes (@maxsklar)!

Talkabot: The bot conference in Austin


Last month, I also attended the Talkabot Conference in Austin, TX. I gave a 30 minute presentation on Marsbot. I guess you could say I am on a national tour! This time, I shifted focus to how we're adopting everything we've learned about user context (location stops, taste likes, time) to send messages that are really useful.

The conference was great - it was actually my first time in Austin. I had a very warm reception from the team at Howdy and on the last day got to go out on a trek to the salt lick for some BBQ with the founders of Kip, and reps from Slack. At the conference itself, there was a lot of talk about developing standards for chat bots, and building tools and platforms upon which these bots will be built. I loved ordering coffee from a bot barista on kik who in addition to giving you coffee also pitches you his screenplays.




Even though chat bots have existed for a while, there is a sense that we've hit an inflection point and some of the killer apps are coming. There is hope that chat could be the next great platform for innovation.

I've been asked to share my slides. Here they are: talkabot-marsbot-presentation-1

If that wasn't fun enough, Marsbot actually attended the Foursquare Halloween party last night!

Marsbot Slides for Industry Talk at RecSys 2016

I recently attended the 2016 conference on Recommender Systems at MIT with my Foursquare coworkers Stephanie Yang and Enrique Cruz. We had several contributions - 2 posters and a 20 minute industry talk on Marsbot.

Marsbot is a character in your pocket that acts as a text-based service for local recommendations. I've been working on it for a while, and we were able to do a full launch a couple months ago. I have so much to say about this project and I hope to expand on it more on this blog soon!

For now, a bunch of people have asked me to post slides from my talk at RecSys so I will post them here. I hope the video of the talk become available soon.PDF of the slides:recsys-marsbot-presentation

Swarm Creator Coins: Another Hackday Project Launch


This post is about another hackday project on Foursquare that we were able to quietly launch into the Swarm app recently.

I always felt that Foursquare and Swarm should give recognition to people who contribute to our database. We want our venue database to be as accurate and up-to-date as possible. I also feel a little bit of pride whenever I’m the first person to add the venue to the database.

For example, I added the 7-Eleven in the East Village to the Foursquare database on it’s grand opening, and now it has over 150 unique visitors on Swarm! Now that’s not bad, but there are some power superusers who have created things that are a lot bigger. You need to be first, and it needs to be someplace important, so it’s tough.

What creator coins does is reward users who create great venues. You don’t get points just for adding any old thing to the venue database – but if you add something that stands the test of time and becomes popular, you will be rewarded with coins whenever you check in.

Also when your friends or friends-of-friends check in, they will recieve some coins, and they’ll be reminded that you are the creator. In that way, you get some recognition!

So, I built this with some pointers from the Swarm team during our hack day a few months ago. We had to get some of the copy I wrote translated, but it’s not live on the site. Tweet at me if you find a good one! Here are some examples:

Typical example, street car with 90 checkins:

This person created an airport terminal venue with almost 34K checkins!

Here’s my own creation of Atlantic Center. I created this venue a few months ago when I was reorganizing Foursquare Supervenues. Turns out that Atlantic Terminal Mall and Atlantic Center are 2 different things, even though they have the same owners and are connected. Confusing!




And here are some cases in my own feed where I learn about Friends of Friends who created places that I love going to:




YASC trip to Ghana - Part 3

Now in Yamaransa, I was on the business consulting team which is similar to the work I did in Trohilo, Nicaragua in 2013 and 2014. We set up a makeshift consulting firm in a couple of classrooms with half-built desks and lots of flies. Men and women who run local businesses come in periodically. We get to know them personally, and learn about what they do. Then we analyze their business model and come up with some recommendations.

Since the YASC group has been there before several times had been there before several times, several of the entrepreneurs had been through this before. In some cases, you get reports of incremental improvements based on changes decided upon in the previous year, which is great. But of course, the YASC volunteers can’t come up with a good plan for every group and just like back home not every plan pans out the way you’d hoped. But essentially, we try to make the most of the time we have with these people by getting to know each other, learning about their business and their goals for the future, and brainstorming ideas.

For example, one man that I met with was a tailor named Moses at the same time my fellow volunteers Faith and LaShawn met with the dressmakers next store. Now Moses told us that he had met with the volunteers last time and not much had come out of it to help his business directly – but that he had started an apprentice program. [I remember being told in translation that he said he was inspired by the help from YASC last year to start this program, but that almost seems to good to be true, so I’m going to put that as a “maybe”]. He asked if it was okay if he brings his apprentices to the meeting, and I said “sure”!

Now I had assumed that he’d be bringing three or four people – but I was surprised when about 20 people showed up! We got the impression that  the dressmakers would all men women and the tailors would be men, and that was true but the apprentices were mixed in gender.

One of the things we went through successfully was pricing. Although I wish I had more time, I went through several different examples of products that could be produced by the tailors. I tend to look at three main variables: the total cost of the input materials, the price that is set for the item, and the time it takes to put it together. Similar to what we found in Nicaragua, the price often reflected the input materials but didn’t take into account labor as well. For example, the back-of-the-napkin calculation we did for a quick 1-hour shirt was 16 cedis of profit per hour, which the 3-day suit was about 3. I’d expect it to go down because the suit is guaranteed work for 3 days, but that differential seemed extreme. Moses agreed. I hope one of those 20 apprentices likes to calculate this stuff, because then maybe they can make a table for all the products for everyone!

Now while that “profit per hour” calculation is helpful, there’s definitely more I would do if I had more time. The pricing strategy once you get that information is important, because you still need to take into account how much work you’re getting (customer acquisition costs) and whether the time spent on a low-profit item is really displacing time that would be spent on a high profit one. But we needed to give the tailors and the dressmakers some time to actually sell to the group – because that generates a one-time infusion of significant business for them and I got a really cool African shirt!

There were several problems that seems to exist in common across all of the entrepreneurs, and many of these same problems existed in Nicaragua as well. First of all, in a community like this you have many customers who expect to be given goods on credit, and they end up not being able to pay. This is not such an easy problem to deal with – because if you start saying “no” to products without payment, you’re going to get pushback from some of these people, who ultimately may be family or close friends.

Another issue that comes up is how to build savings. Given the tiny amounts that people are making, it’s very difficult to put something away. Once they take care of their immediate family, people are often expected to help extended family in need as well.

In addition to my work on the business team, I was also able to see what the education team, and the group working on Yamoransa’s new ICT center was up to. I was able to sneak in a couple of math classes on Friday (August 12th), and because I needed to come up with something at the last second, I decided to talk about the handshake problem. It seemed to go pretty well – fortunately we had very exceptional translations from GhanaThink volunteers as well as from AFS Ghana throughout the whole process making this possible. I changed the handshake problem to the fistbump problem, and I had the students (age maybe 9 or 10?) get up in groups of various sizes to see how many fist bumps they need so that everyone in the group matches with everyone else. The result is a combination of fun interactive trials plus an exploration into a variety of problem solving techniques. It also introduces some ideas in computer science which I really love.

While the students didn’t seem to have enough access to mathematics enrichment, they don’t seem to have the same aversion to math that you would find in classrooms and among the general population of the United States. In several conversations, math seemed to be a subject that the people enjoyed and wanted to learn more about.

And finally – I got to organize books for the library in the newly minted ITC center. Because internet access is limited, this is being set up with old-school paper records. Some of the books looked interested since many were children’s books on a variety of scientific topics like space. Some books contained information about far away places such as Angola, or New York. I had to read the book about the latter – which seemed to take an overly positive view of Tammany Hall, and also had a section on Donald Trump as a real estate developer and reality star from 2010. I wanted to write stuff in the margins, but I stopped myself.

This new center is really remarkable – the rooms looks open and comfortable, and part of the purpose of this center is to provide computer education and literacy. Now their internet access availability is going to be very limited, but there’s still a lot that can be done. For example, thousands of books can be uploaded into e-readers. I’m really excited about the idea of having an offline version of the Khan academy available. If that’s the case, you can have a whole generation of students and teachers who have access to materials up to the college level. And I have no doubt that people will want to use it. If that’s the case, what effect does this have several years down the road? Seems like it will be very positive, but time will tell.

Finally, I know I haven’t mentioned all the great people I worked with. There are too many to list! But on the business development team, we had Lisa Unsworth leading it, and I worked closely with LaShawn Warren (we had some very interesting discussions with the breadmakers), Anke Tietz and Faith Lin (who were great with the hairdressers and dressmakers), Aric Sangruchi, Sam Blango, and Nick Mason. Also a shout out to Hamilton Barnes volunteering from GhanaThink was there the whole time translating some very complex stories back and forth, particularly with the breadmakers!











YASC trip to Ghana, Part 2

Now on to Yamaransa, the community where we were working last week. Yamaransa is located between Accra and Cape Coast, 2 important cities and Ghana. Yamaransa lies at an important 3 way intersection: to the west is Cape Coast, to the East is Accra, and inland to the north is the major city of Kumasi in the Ashanti region.

YASC along with several other organizations have been working there since 2011. The focus has been on education, health, business, and the construction (and sustainability) of a community center. The priorities have been set by the community leaders themselves, not outsiders. The idea for us is to engage in some cultural exchange, and hopefully make the community better off and help them achieve their goals – be it education, economic development, or anything else. Because this has been an ongoing effort, we’ve been able to measure our efforts and learn from our mistakes. It was great to see some of the progress that has already been made, and I hope to see progress continue for years to come.

When we first got to the site, we were treated to a host family visit followed by a cultural fair put on by AFS Ghana – one of our ground partners. My host was a catholic priest in town. His sister was also visiting – a woman in her 20s who was finishing up high school. It was clear that it was not due to monetary constraints and not to effort. I asked her what her favorite subject was, and when she said math I said “ah ha! We need to talk about this!” because it was very difficult to find common ground otherwise. I recited the proof that there are an infinite number of primes, and she wrote down a multiplication table for modulo arithmetic. She said “I wish you could come by and teach math every day!”

At the cultural fair I saw a lot of things that were familiar. At the booth of Ghanian games, they had one that was very similar to Mancala. All the different tribes are still confusing to me – the people in Yamoransa speak Fante (and that’s in the central region), and the Ashanti to the north is it’s own region. They have their own kings (local leaders) independent of the government.

In religion, they combine western religions with traditional African beliefs. There are so many churches and Mosques all over Ghana – probably the majority of non-house buildings. In the town there are Catholics, Protestants, and even the Mormon church has a significant presence. And there is also a large Muslim population, but not too many Jews. Ghana doesn’t seem to have the religious strife that would be expected from such a combination (and that happens in other parts of the world). They have developed a mature and tolerant attitude towards the different religions and there is no evidence that any group preaches hate or distrust towards any other group.

Interestingly, I identified more with some of their traditional African traditions than their western religious ones – and in some cases seemed more familiar to me. They have very specific ceremonies for different events in life such as birth, adulthood, marriage, and death. The baby naming ceremony takes place on the eighth day after birth. The people there can have both western names, as well as 14 possible day names based on gender and weekday of birth. The ceremony involves both water and wine – and I wasn’t sure on the exact symbolism there but maybe it’s two different aspects of life.

The funerals are very interesting. If the person was old – the funeral becomes a celebration of the person’s life. The coffin could be designed to represent them (perhaps their profession) – and they make giant posters that you see all over town describing relatives who have passed on. The funeral looks more like a send off to the world to come.

Also, we were able to hear the traditional horn that is played in honor of the Ashanti kings. It looks and sounds exactly the same as the Shofar that is heard in synagogue every year in Rosh Hashana. And finally – we were treated to lots and lot of drumming. Drumming for music. Drumming for communication. Drumming for ceremonial celebrations. Like pretty much constantly the whole time.



[ Up Next: The Volunteer work ]

YASC Trip to Ghana - Part 1 of 3

I just returned from Ghana on a volunteer trip with the Yale Alumni Service Corps, and what an amazing trip it was! This was my first time visiting Ghana, or any country in Africa for that matter. Turns out that I didn’t know a whole lot about the country and I had a lot to learn. I’m going to provide here an outsider’s perspective based on a 2 week trip so take my words not as encyclopedic knowledge but as the initial perception of one American which subject to change.

I arrived at the Airport in Accra on July 29th for a week of tours which included Togo and Benin. Those were countries I knew even less about (!) but let’s stick to Ghana.

Ghana gained its independence from Britain in 1957, and that event is seen as heralding the decolonization of Africa from the Europeans. The United States sent a delegation including a couple of household names today: then-Vice President Nixon, and Martin Luther King. At the time Ghana was known as “Gold Coast” – following the same naming scheme as its neighboring “Ivory Coast” which tell us what explorers and traders were initially doing there. But in order to symbolize their independence, the founders decided to name their country after the ancient Ghana Empire in west Africa. In this way, the idea was to take an ancient, homegrown civilization, and reimagine it as a modern democracy.

In fact, some of Ghana’s democratic institutions are similar to what we have in the US. In foreign policy, they were part of the non-aligned movement (neither with the US or the USSR in the cold war). Domestically, we Americans may be familiar with some of the government functions. But while Ghana was never a communist state, the founders instituted socialist-style plans for industrialization. If you look around today, you can’t say that’s been too successful. Corruption by government employees is seen as an impediment to economic growth. Heavy industry would have been better off under private initiative, if only a consistent regime of laws and rights can be relied upon.

After several coups and periods of instability, Ghana today has a stable democracy with competitive elections and a functioning judicial and legislative branch. That doesn’t mean that the government works for the people as much as they would like – but change is possible through the ballot box as opposed to violence.

So enough about that – what about the regular folks? When I was walking and riding around in the bus in Accra, I had never seen so many people working and hustling so hard. If you watch the people on the street, you can see that everyone is on a mission – and I’d say this is even more than in New York City. Most people are trying to sell things. Many are carrying large items, moving them from one place to another. Some people are dressed nicely walking briskly to meetings or events. You can see still other people with books and backpacks on their way to school. Hard work and initiative come naturally to Ghanaians, and I’d say they are a nation of entrepreneurs.

In central Accra there are lots of large construction projects. Like in Downtown Brooklyn, they seem to be on a bit of a building spree. But once you get outside the city, you notice something very interesting: a lot of half-built houses made of cinderblock.

When we in the US want to save for a house, we might open up a savings account, or perhaps invest in the money market and mutual funds. Then, we you have enough for a down payment, we can get a mortgage, and voila – we’re in the house! When these Ghanaians are saving for a house – they literally see a partial house! They purchase each cinder block when they can in the hopes that they can one day finish. This is the best option for many people, but it comes with many risks. Do they have the title to their land? The government can come in and give it to a third party in the name of economic development. Are they protected from natural disaster or theft? I doubt the insurance market is well developed. Can they sell half a house? I could imagine having a good market for that, but it appears that it probably isn’t.

Still, our savings and mortgage strategy is also fraught with risk and it’s a matter of mitigating those risks and improving efficiency. There might be economic opportunities in Ghana for solving problems of land-title, insurance, real estate markets, and division of labor for home builders.

Buying things in West Africa is also too much for me. I’m not used to bargaining on the spot! It’s stressful. Apparently I was very good at it when I negotiated for a hat in an Accra market. I have a hat already, why do I need yours? Yeah, I understand this is an African hat, but my nerdy tourist hat perfectly fits my needs. I don’t know about that design. So I got them to come way down on the price. But then somehow I didn’t leave the shop without buying a Ghana Soccer Jersey (awesome!) and a watercolor painting (I don’t need it!). I came home with a lot of cool stuff – but I would have looked around more if I could eye a product without the assumption that I was going to buy it.

While I found the vendors to be overly aggressive, I also found them to have a certain straightforwardness. Sure – they all claim to have a “good price just for you” and to be your friend – but I didn’t catch anyone trying to mislead about their products. And in a few cases they answers my questions correctly even if they knew it wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. I bet with a little practice one could understand their “lingo” and be able to make wise purchases.



[ Up Next: Arrival in Yamaransa ]