Paradise Dreams

Over the last few years, investment in Vanuatu has boomed. It’s been estimated that the amount of cash in the economy is increasing by an astounding 150% per year. Compare that with the period between 1990 and 2004, when economic activity grew more slowly than the population.

But for most of the residents of this so-called paradise, little has changed.

Prices have increased somewhat, but curiously many of the more common expenses have not. Bus fares, for example, have not budged even though fuel prices have soared. Consequently, Vanuatu’s minimum wage has about the same buying power today as it had years ago.

That’s not entirely good news….

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A National Plan

I have a confession to make. I’m a snob. At least, I am where technology is concerned. Okay, maybe I’m not the type to cross the street when I see someone with last year’s doohickey du jour. But I do notice when your smart phone looks (or acts) like a brick. I can tell at a glance whether your machine is a cutting edge screamer or the technological equivalent of East Germany’s Brabant automobile, legendary for its poor quality.

I like good engineering, good design and efficient performance. In short, I like things that do their job well, whatever that job may be. I like it so much that I hate to settle for less than the best. Not the biggest, necessarily, nor the most expensive. Just the best.

This focus on tools made me lose sight of a couple of important things: First, while doing things perfectly is a commendable ideal, it happens exactly 0% of the time in the real world. Second, Vanuatu is more, er, ‘real world’ than many other places on Earth.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a leftie when it comes to computing. I like to see as much power in the hands of the people as possible. While it’s nice – and often necessary – to rely on services provided by others, I’ve always believed that DIY is the most empowering way to go. So, when the news began to percolate out that Vanuatu would have truly national mobile phone services, I was interested mostly in how that might help the spread of computers into the islands.

What I didn’t consider is that the mobile might actually become the computer.
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The Soft Computer

Let’s forget about technology for a moment. Let’s quit thinking about contraptions that rattle more than they hum, often alarmingly. Let’s not talk about technology at all.

Let’s talk about people instead.

‘What a piece of work is a man!’ says Hamlet. ‘How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!’

This speech has always puzzled me, because many of the human beings I know may qualify as a ‘piece of work’, but lack somewhat in the expressive, admirable, angelic and god-like categories. It only follows, therefore, that if humans are less than angelic in their actions, the things they do with technology might likewise be flawed.
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Fix This and Tell Me When You're Done

[First written in February of 2004. I’m reposting it here for posterity, and because it came up in conversation earlier today. There’ve been a few serious attacks against expats recently, including a murder and a particularly brutal rape. The perception among some is of a sudden uptick in violent crime. I recounted this story to suggest that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.]

The attack happened last Monday in the afternoon. It didn’t last long, but it left her with a concussion and a broken collarbone.

She was in her apartment, had been for a little while. She settled herself down at her laptop to write up some workshop notes. She heard a noise from the front bedroom, empty now because her friend had left precipitately after no one listened to her fears. She stood, not sure whether to investigate or flee. A man appeared in the doorway, and knocked her down hard as she started to scream. The broken bone immobilised her, so all she could do was scream as loud as she could. Her assailant fled within seconds.

And nobody came.
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Au Péché Mignon

[Editor’s note: The author was afflicted at the time of writing with a pinched radial nerve, which has led to chronic pain in his right hand. As a result, he has left off his normal florid prose to write in the concise ‘telegraphic prose’ of the young Earnest Hemingway. We apologise for the inconvenience.]

[Editor’s other note: Originally posted in October, 2005. Copied to the Scriptorum because the author [sic] thinks it’s worth keeping.]

The café is a clean, well shaded place. The kind of place a man appreciates once he’s lived long enough to appreciate good, honest coffee. The kind of coffee picked by hand by the good, honest people of Tanna.

The cafe is named Au Péché Mignon. The man likes to call it the little sin. The kind of sin worth living for. The kind of sin people forget about when they are searching for something to die for. It is a good sin, the little sin. An honest sin.

The waitresses are both named Marie. They stand together at the end of their shift, waiting for the man to leave. Their dark faces take on a copper hue as the sun sets over the bay.

Marie, the younger one, says, ‘There he is. Just like yesterday.’

‘And every day,’ says Marie, the older one.

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Uncommon Sense

Throughout history, the distance between technology and society has been a defining characteristic of nations, empires and peoples. While it’s tempting to say that the most technologically sophisticated societies represent the pinnacle of human achievement, that’s not necessarily true. Some would argue that keeping social values paramount and learning how to adapt technology to human needs is a more effective means to ensure the health of a society.

Unfortunately, health, happiness and social justice can’t always be judged using objective economic measures. How does one measure crimes that don’t happen, meals that don’t get missed, sick days not taken?

Economic indicators do serve a number of useful purposes, of course. The Pacific Economic Survey – I wrote about it here – includes some extremely useful and instructive data concerning the effects of market liberalisation on communications. It also pointed out some inherent weaknesses in Vanuatu and elsewhere in the region, particularly with regards to technical know-how.

People in Vanuatu could teach many an economist a thing or two about what makes for a meaningful and contented life. But isolation is part of what has made life in Vanuatu simpler and more relaxed, and as that isolation erodes, we find ourselves facing significant technical challenges, some of which have a steep learning curve.

The small group of individuals who have taken leadership in opening the telecommunications market in Vanuatu have been remarkably successful thus far. People close to the process agree that the settlement agreement and the new licenses are extremely well framed. They have learned by the example of those countries who went before, and have created a comprehensive and detailed framework with very little ambiguity. This allows Digicel, Telecom Vanuatu and future entrants to focus on doing business rather than bogging themselves down in legalese, negotiation and other distractions.

But there remains much to be decided, and much to be done:

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The Pacific Economic Survey

Earlier this week, Australia unveiled the Pacific Economic Survey here in Port Vila. Present for the event was a delegation from all around the Pacific Region, including Melanesia and Polynesia as well as senior politicians from Australia. AUSAid’s chief economist was also there to present the findings.

The report is the first of a series of annual surveys that will provide an overview and update of economic developments in the Pacific island region and Timor-Leste. It collates and summarises public data on various aspects of the region’s national economies, performs some comparative and collective analysis with the results, then provides a few basic recommendations.

The theme for this year’s report was Connectivity. The survey focuses on aviation, shipping and telecommunications. It argues that liberalisation, more input from the private sector, and a cooperative regional approach to the problems inherent in improving connectivity are keys to improving Pacific economies.

The findings in the area of telecommunications do much to validate the Government of Vanuatu’s market liberalisation strategy and provide every encouragement to expand upon them. It addresses some potential pitfalls that might be encountered, primarily where access to technical expertise is concerned. And that is where it risks missing the boat.

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Power and Politics – a Sketch

Chief Vincent Boulekone with Duncan Kerr

I had the privilege this week of being asked to take some photographs at the Vanuatu unveiling of the Pacific Economic Survey. The event was attended by two Australian Parliamentary Secretaries and by a number of fairly senior individuals in Vanuatu. The photos I took will be collected here.

I was proudest of the photo above. It’s of two veteran politicians whose approach and presentation could hardly be further apart.

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Yahoo! Confirms MS Merger, Name Change

April 1, 2008

Sunnyvale, California

Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang told reporters today that the board of directors of Yahoo! Inc. had met earlier that morning and agreed to the sale of the company at a price of USD 66.6 Billion. Yang took the opportunity to defuse speculation about what this move means for the company.

Said Yang, “Honestly, it’s not that big a deal. The truth is that we used to show up at the company HQ every day, see that Yahoo! sign up there and get excited. But recently that just hasn’t been the case. I must be getting old or something. Anyway, I figured, ‘they want it? They can have it. I’m stinking rich anyway, why should I have to work?'”

One of the conditions of sale was that the Yahoo! name be changed.

“Let’s just admit it,” explained Yang. “It’s a stupid name. It was fun for, like, 20 minutes. Then we all sobered up and realised we felt like dorks whenever we told someone where we worked.”

Yang then took the opportunity to unveil Yahoo!’s new name: Meh… Its logo, Yang said, will be a giant emoticon consisting of the ‘8’, ‘-‘ and ‘/’ characters. When pressed by reporters, he admitted that it would not be easier to spell, and would still cause problems with grammar checkers.

“On the bright side,” he added, “we might finally be able to fix this, now that we’re part of… Meh… Microsoft.”

Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer, was not present at the press conference, due to a ‘minor’ chair-related injury. He instead released a taped message stating his satisfaction with the negotiations, which ended with a cryptic reminder to Yahoo! employees that their families would be safe, now that they’d shown some sense. Yang would not speculate about the comment’s meaning.