Tuesday, February 9, 2016


This is a word I expect to have seen only in one instance and never see again, but words have a funny way of reappearing once you've really noticed them, so maybe I'm wrong about that. In a recent reading of A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd, "laterite" appeared not once but six times--I know because I used Google Books to find the different instances. Although it becomes clear that it's some sort of paving substance, it never really gets any clearer what that substance is.

"a well-trodden patch of laterite"

"a bald laterite square"

"the far end of the laterite compound"

"a rutted laterite track"

I suppose the one thing you can gather from this is that laterite is a commonly used substance, at least in the West African country that Boyd has invented to tell his story. But maybe we can learn a little more than that.

Wikipedia has an uncharacteristically "we throw up our hands" sort of comment about laterite:

Laterite has commonly been referred to as a soil type as well as being a rock type. This and further variation in the modes of conceptualizing about laterite (e.g. also as a complete weathering profile or theory about weathering) has led to calls for the term to be abandoned altogether. At least a few researchers specializing in regolith development have considered that hopeless confusion has evolved around the name. There is no likelihood, however, that the name will ever be abandoned; for material that looks highly similar to the Indian laterite occurs abundantly worldwide, and it is reasonable to call such material laterite.

More helpfully, though, they do agree that it is an iron oxide rich substance formed by long weathering of the parent rock. Laterite tends to be found in wet tropical places. 

About the origin of the word, however, things are a lot clearer. Again via Wikipedia, it was named by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a Scottish physician who after time spent in the Merchant Navy ended up in India. He seems to have been a man of diverse talents, as, in addition to becoming the surgeon to the Governor General of India, he also got together the Calcutta zoo. He was asked to do two very extensive surveys of regions in South India, which included reports on things as diverse as topography, antiquities and agriculture. In 1807 he named a rock formation he'd come upon laterite, taking later from the Latin for brick. (You can find a nice quote from him about lateite at a website called Z'shell-TeR .)There is even a monument to mark the spot where he defined it in Angadipuram, Kerala, India:

                                                    Werner Schellmann
For, although so far I've mentioned laterite as a paving surface, it is also quite commonly formed into bricks. Even Angkor Wat, the famous Cambodian temple known for its  beautiful sandstone relief work has an underlying structure of laterite. National Geographic has a nice short video explaining all this.

                                                    Werner Schellman

The usage I had more in mind,though, relates to laterite used as pavement in Africa.  The French used it a lot in their colonies, including their African ones. As William Boyd pointed out in his interview at The White Review, the part of West Africa where he grew up wasn't colonized, but the practice of using laterite for roads and the like must have spread to the region, since he uses the word so casually in his novel. An African road of laterite in Senegal looks like this:

                                                                         Dorothy Voorhees

Apparently, these roads work quite as well as gravel roads, but as there is clay in their composition they have a tendency to get slick when wet.

In Boyd's novel, I still am not sure what all the areas he mentions laterite in actually look like. The trails probably look a little like the picture above, but the laterite square could have been paved with bricks like this:

If it was made of laterite, though, it almost certainly would have been some sort of shade of rusty red. 

Monday, February 1, 2016


The Iowa caucuses are going on this evening, which is the way that a state's Democratic and Republican parties choose their delegates for their respective party conventions. Iowa generates a lot of buzz because it's the first state to do so in the election year, and is a kind of marker separating all the speculation that goes on before a single vote has been cast and the kind of speculation that goes on after there's a little hard data coming in. People claim to be able to predict a lot by what happens in Iowa and perhaps they even can.

I'm a Californian, and we don't have caucuses, we have primaries, so "caucus" is one of those many, many words and concepts that I have some vague and woolly understanding of, meaning, basically, no understanding at all.

But let's start with the word itself. For some reason, it always reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, and that's because, on investigation, there actually is a caucus race in chapter three. According to Spark Notes, the Dodo suggests a caucus race in order to get dry, which consists of all the animals running around helter skelter for half an hour until the Dodo declares the race at an end. Is it any wonder that I have a very strange notion of what goes on in those Iowa caucus rooms?

                                                               Project Gutenberg

Having suspected a British origin, I thought "caucus" might go back to the Romans, the "-us" on the end being the clue, but in this I was very wrong. It's actually an American word, which goes way back to the early days of the country, and has origins in a couple of possible sources, none definitive. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, its first in print in 1763 and may have come from the Algonquin word for counselor or adviser, which was caucausu, or from the name of a Boston drinking club, the Caucus Club, which may have been taken from the Greek kaukos, which means drinking cup. Whatever the origins, it was an American style institution from the get go, which makes me wonder how Lewis Carroll got interested in it.

The first usage mentioned in print referred to a private meeting of party leaders, but the term soon became more generalized and John Pickering in his 1816 book, "A vocabulary, or collection of words and phrases which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States of America" called it a cant term referring to any meeting where party members agree on candidates or measures before more public discussions. (Quote is at Online Etymology Dictionary if you're interested.)

I wouldn't have been able to tell you before looking into this, but Iowa is far from the only state to hold caucuses. What's your guess? This article by Andi O'Rourke will tell you exactly how many states (and territories, that's a hint) use the caucus selection process. It also breaks down how each state uses the caucus process in its own way.

As far as the Iowa caucuses goes, the Democrats and the Republicans handle them in quite different ways. Both parties convene in a variety of precinct meeting places, like churches, schools, etc. There may be speeches and some last minute items of business. At this point, the Republicans cast secret ballots, pretty much like you would in a California primary (although, as I watch, it's really just folded pieces of paper handed in) and at that point, their work is done. For the Democrats, though, their work is only beginning.

Democrats gather into candidate preference groups. Then each group is counted. A candidate has to have 15% of the total votes in the room at the time of the count. If they don't, their group has to disperse and throw in their lot with another group, and that group now has to try and come up with the required 15%. Patrick Allen at Life Hacker has a good piece on all of this

Here's an example from a presidential precinct in Iowa, circa 2008.

Hmm. Maybe Lewis Carroll was more on point than I thought.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tools for Change

Burkina-Faso, Administrative Divisions
I had honestly thought I was done with the inspiring posts for the season, but one more came my way at the Penny University  on Monday night, a discussion group I have been attending mostly faithfully for what seems like forever. This week we had not one but two guest speakers who are working on innovative projects in Africa. Ron Swenson has visited before. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of podcars as a preferable means of public transportation, and is becoming interested in the possibility that African cities may be more ready for such a change so was headed to East Africa to talk to some movers and shakers about that. I'm thinking Ron's ideas may fit in to a future blog post, so I think I'll leave that there for now.

Our other guest was Pierre Yamleowo Balma, who comes from Zao Village in Koupela, Burkina Faso, West Africa. It was his luck to become one of the few children designated to go to school, and his path eventually led him to Santa Cruz, where a former Peace Corps volunteer in his village now lived. On one of his visits to the area, he and his friend were taking some stuff to the dump, and Pierre saw many still usable tools that  had just been thrown away. To him this looked like amazing wealth, but he was told that neither he nor anyone else was allowed to just rummage through the dump. These articles were off-limits. He would have to find another way to acquire our cast off belongings. 

One thing led to another, and Tools for Change was born. Coordinating with a music festival called Reggae on the River which takes place every year on the Eel River up in Humboldt county, Tools for Change designated a drop off space for used tools, as well as other ways of donating, and on November 17th of this year, a 40 foot shipping container full of tools bound for Burkina Faso left the Oakland port. It is bound for Ghana, as Burkina Faso is a landlocked country. There is a sizable port fee and then the cost of shipping the tools over land. As Pierre explained it all of the tools have been engraved with the word "Common", because the intention is shared use by the whole village of 3000 people. Pierre's idea reaches beyond simple charity. To quote from an article from the Redwood Times about a visit he made to a the Garberville Rotary Club, there is an inspirational aspect.  He wants to be able to tell his people, “These were the tools of Americans. They used them to build their country and we can do the same here and become independent and prosperous.”

As Pierre admits, the whole idea is an experiment. If it doesn't work, he seems like the kind of guy who will try something else. But if it does, well, Zao Village is only one of many, many poor village collectives in Burkina Faso, and America has an awful lot of discarded tools. 

Tax-deductible monetary contributions, which may help with getting this load of tools to journey's end as well as future projects, may be sent to:

Mateel Community Center
c/o Tools For Change Program
P.O. Box 1910
Redway, CA 95560

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Let's all go to Mars!

Okay, maybe not literally for some of us. But you know, we can all participate. Remember the space race? I mean, when you studied it in school, not like me, who remembers watching Neil Armstrong walking on the moon...live.

If, as Chris Hedges says, "War is a force that gives us meaning," and William James searched for "The Moral Equivalent of War", meaning something that challenged our greatest capacities and gave us our greatest solidarity as humans without involving bloodshed, doesn't a friendly competition to figure out how we can become a multi planet species, as Elon Musk suggests we must, make sense?

At any rate, after a dispiriting last couple of months,it was quite cheering to watch the incredible SpaceX launch and return undamaged of Falcon 9. As most of us have known since John Glenn, Star Trek and of course Star Wars, space is our future. So why are we wasting time duking it out down here?

Merry Christmas to those who observe it and happy holidays to everyone who gets through the dark days of the year with some kind of joyous (and peaceful) celebration.

Oh, yeah. And may be the Force be with you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Something you can do for me

I know--you think now's the time I start passing around the hat for some cause dear to me. But for some of you, it may be a good deal harder than just throwing a few dollars toward a good cause. The favor I'm asking is that, even though this is a busy season, and you're a great multi-tasker and an even better driver, please don't text and drive. I understand that it's a hardship, and you are really good at it. But you can be good at it 999 times and wreck your own life and someone else's forever on the thousandth. Please just use some self-restraint and wait until you can pull over.

And, since I probably haven't convinced you, here's a little film from none other than the great Werner Herzog, who took the time and care to make a little documentary about it a couple of years ago. Sadly, it's still relevant. Here, without further ado, is "From One Second to the Next".

Monday, December 14, 2015

Feel the Ville!

Tired of the same old holiday songs? Maybe it's time to try something new. It may start out a little chaotic, but by the end you will be energized to do whatever Christmas or holiday task you need to do.

I recently became acquainted with Dapo Akers as a Linked In connection. He's got a book series about a character called Robin from the Hood, who transforms from being a "hood from the hood" to, well, someone more like Robin Hood. You can check out the series HERE.

That's Dapo playing the guitar in the video. Have fun. If the lady with the cane can dance to this, you really have no excuse. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015


My friend Meg and I have developed a fun gift giving tradition in recent years. She gives me a Kiva gift card and I give her one right back. It was her idea and she's the proactive one, but I'm happy to take part in the exchange.

Odds are, you've heard of Kiva. It's a microlending organization where people crowdsource loans to people around the world who otherwise would't have access to them. Mostly these are in places where the offical lending institutions aren't set up, or aren't set up for people at their tier of the economy. There are some U.S. loans available too.

I've heard some criticisms of Kiva: the loans can be at a pretty high interest rate to the borrowers, but that's not because the lenders get anything back. It's often because of what it takes to administer these loans where the infrastructure for them isn't good. I've also heard the complaint that microlending isn't the panacea for world poverty that it was once vaunted to be. So I was interested in the section of the Challenges of Global Poverty course I took online that addressed this. On balance, their conclusion was that though microlending had its limitations, a good way to think of it was that it offered people a way to improve their life a little. I think sometimes people get a little outraged if someone is borrowing to pay for a wedding or to buy new furniture, instead of improving their farm or whatever, but if you think of it as giving people a way to afford some of the pleasures of life that we take for granted, even the little luxuries make sense.

Although the risk is all yours and people do occasionally default, my own experience is that the only time anyone every defaulted on a loan I'd made was because he had unfortunately died. And even then it was only a part of the loan. There can be some currency exchange loss and that's happened to me more frequently. Frankly, though I'm not in this to get a full return. The best thing about people paying back is that you can turn around and lend it to someone else. So even some very poor people have a way of paying it forward.

Once you join, you can affiliate with a team of your choice, but only if you'd like to. I'm on a few. My personal pitch is for the Late Loan Lenders, as the whole aim of this team is to keep loans from expiring (they only have 30 days to get fully funded, so it's a problem, though more for the field partners than for the borrowers themselves). So, though of course I'm all for empowering women, in practice women's loans tend to get funded faster than those to lone men, so I may have a disproportionate amount of Tajikistani cab drivers in my portfolio. I'm also on the Electric Animal Enthusiasts team, which you'll be glad to know isn't a team that enjoys electrocuting animals, but instead enjoys the crazy way some animals eyes glow in the dark in their pictures.

Anyway, if you need a 25 dollar gift for someone who has everything, maybe Kiva is just the place for you to shop. Or maybe just invest it for yourself. It turns out that it's pretty fun to be a financier.