Nigeria, Day 2: Trust and Travel

My last post stirred up concern and sympathy among friends and family, which felt reassuring on the one hand and a bit embarrassing on the other. If you’re in a position where you can have a bad experience, then immediately find sympathetic ears from worried friends and colleagues both on the ground and over the Internet, then you’re really not in a bad place. I pulled out my camera last night at dinner, and Fatima, who works with Judith Walker at dRPC and who’s been taking care of us, teased, “You can take as many pictures as you want here, and we won’t take your camera away!”    (N09)

The truth of the matter is, my travel experiences — both now and in Ethiopia and India — have been mightily skewed by the fact that (a) I’ve had trusted locals in each place who have embraced and taken care of me; and (b) I’ve stayed in the equivalent of luxury hotels everywhere I’ve gone. When I returned from India and Ethiopia, I told people that if I had to go back a second time, I’d be completely useless because my hosts took such great care of me, I didn’t have to do anything. Even when I’ve spent time with villagers in extremely rural conditions, I’ve always returned to a hotel with running water and, in several cases, Internet. High-bandwidth Internet is a huge, huge luxury in many of the countries I’ve been working in, particularly Nigeria, and I’ve had good enough access here to Twitter regularly. Roughing it I am not.    (N0A)

There are two levels of challenges when visiting a developing country. The first has to do with base-level needs. If you’re intimidated by poor plumbing and strange foods, you’re not going to have a good time. I’m staying at the Tahir Hotel here in Kano, which is where Madeline Albright stayed when she visited. (Magdalena Lopez is staying in the room Albright stayed in, her prize for having arrived first.) While the service and security here has been first class, the quality of the lodgings has been about equivalent to a decent, but not great hotel in a developed country. The water pressure is very low, the hot water doesn’t work, the toilets don’t take toilet paper, and the power goes out often. These are all functions of the infrastructural challenges of the location and don’t reflect on the hotel itself. We still have it a million times better than most people here in Kano.    (N0B)

If you can deal with the rougher living conditions, then the main challenge in developing countries is finding people you can trust. You can see this right when you exit the airport, when you are bombarded with people offering to help you, the vast majority of whom are looking to scam you. How are you supposed to filter through all of these offers and find someone trustworthy? There are plenty of scam artists in most large cities, but in the States, you can be fairly certain that cabbies aren’t going to rip you off (too badly) or that security isn’t going to solicit a bribe by stealing your camera.    (N0C)

In Nigeria, people in the know don’t exchange their currency at banks. Thieves hang out there, looking to rob newly weighed down patrons, not to mention the thieves inside the bank who rip you off with poor exchange rates. People in the know have a “guy.” (We met ours in front of a Chinese restaurant on the streets of Kano, negotiated a great rate, did our business, and moved on without ever leaving our car.) There are, of course, no directories of trusted “guys,” at least none that I’m aware of. Choose badly, and you could end up with a handful of counterfeit money. Or worse.    (N0D)

https://i0.wp.com/farm4.static.flickr.com/3127/2605947618_4e9b44a087_m.jpg?w=700    (N0O)

Haddis Mulugeta told me that, up until about ten years ago, people took it for granted that they would need to include a bribe inside their passport in order to gain entry into Nigeria. Stuff like this is what makes travel hard in these countries. You have to build trust to operate; you can’t trust the formal institutions. In developed countries, trust is institutionalized.    (N0E)

What’s sad and bad is that these challenges have a way of coloring one’s attitude about the people, which is totally wrong. Internationally, Nigerians have a reputation for scams and running drugs. However, letting this affect your judgement of the people as a whole is like saying that all Arabs are terrorists or that all Americans are ignorant and arrogant. I’ve heard nasty stories about muggings and shootings, especially near the Niger Delta. Well, I grew up in a safe neighborhood in suburban Los Angeles, and the guy living across the street from us got shot in his own home. It happens. I’ve spent time in cities all over the world, but I’ve only been mugged once in my life, and that was at the Newark Airport. Based on my experiences, I might argue that New Jersey is the scariest place on Earth. That happens to be true, but in most cases, generalizing like this is really stupid.    (N0F)

I had a rough start to my trip, but I had a great first day here, and I’m starting to get excited. I got to see a bit of Kano, and I learned a few words in Hausa. More importantly, I’m around amazing people.    (N0G)

Of course, the one thing that is guaranteed to get me excited is the food. At lunch today, Cheryl Francisconi told Judith Walker, our host, that I want nothing less than the authentic, local experience. Judith turned to me and asked with some surprise and delight, “Are you okay with cow tails?” Uh, yeah. If you’ve never had my Mom’s ox tail soup, then you haven’t lived. It turns out that Kamyla Marvi is also an adventurous eater, and Cheryl is no slouch herself, so this is going to be fun. I don’t know exactly what Judith and Fatima have in store for us, but I heard the words “goat’s head” and “brain” bandied about, so they’re not fooling around.    (N0H)

Eight Random Facts

I’m breaking my longest blog silence in a while (over a month!), thanks to prodding from Mark Oehlert, who tagged me with the “Eight Random Facts” blog meme. I actually enjoy these memes; you learn a lot about folks that they might never otherwise reveal. Plus, it’s a good way to get people to post something. In Mark’s case, not only were all eight of his facts interesting, I was surprised to learn that he knows how to count to eight in Korean. How many non-Koreans know how to do that?!    (MFV)

Here are the rules:    (MFW)

  1. Post these rules first, then give the facts.    (MFX)
  2. List eight random facts about yourself.    (MFY)
  3. Tag eight people, listing their names and linking to them, and letting them know they were tagged.    (MFZ)

I’m actually using Mark’s modified rules, tagging seven people and leaving the eighth open to any and all of you.    (MG0)

Here are my eight random facts:    (MG1)

  • I sang in a Korean children’s choir when I was ten. My singing career included a “music video” of me singing a Korean folk song at the beach, which played on the local Korean television station every night for a week. Unbelievably, no agents ever contacted me, and my singing career ended soon thereafter.    (MG2)
  • My body is on the March 1997 cover of Dr. Dobb’s Journal. They replaced my head with a computer monitor, leaving me with head-image problems that persist to this day. My boss at the time promised to serve as my agent, but once again, no one ever contacted me. I tried to fire him, but he claimed that I couldn’t fire someone I wasn’t paying. (That, of course, was libel. I was paying him on commission.) Thus ended my last foray into what we from Los Angeles call The Business.    (MG3)
  • I discovered a bug in the very first computer program, Ada Lovelace‘s code for computing Bernoulli Numbers, which she published in 1843. I briefly mentioned my findings in the sidebar of an article I coauthored with Betty Alexandra Toole on Ada Lovelace in the May 1999 issue of Scientific American. Frankly, this alone should qualify me for my own Wikipedia page. Take into account my glorious accomplishments in the entertainment industry, and the fact that I don’t already have a page is even more mystifying. What’s up, Wikipedia community?!    (MG4)
  • I am the proud owner of three bobblehead dolls: Steve Garvey (my favorite baseball player growing up), Tommy Lasorda (my favorite overweight Italian baseball manager), and Mr. T (everybody’s favorite mohawked, bejeweled tough guy). I’m looking to add James Worthy (my favorite basketball player growing up) and Bruce Lee (everybody’s favorite butt-kicker) to my collection, but I’m not sure they even exist.    (MG5)
  • I have two non-family portraits hanging in my office: Doug Engelbart and Thomas Kuhn.    (MG6)
  • My favorite book is Robert Penn Warren‘s All the King’s Men, which I read at least once a year. All of my computers are named after characters in the book.    (MG7)
  • My secret passion: Watching cooking shows. I’m a bit of a cooking show snob. I think the shows on KQED are much better overall than the ones on Food Network. My favorites are Lida Bastianich, Rick Bayless, Bobby Flay, Jacques Pepin, and of course, Iron Chef. I was also a big fan of Julia Childs, the most famous alumnus of my junior high and high school.    (MG8)
  • My two sisters (one older, one younger) are my favorite people in the world. My nephew, Elliott, is my favorite person under three feet tall, although he’s growing like a weed.    (MG9)

As for folks I’m tagging, it was hard limiting myself to seven people. Please participate even if you weren’t tagged! Those I chose in the end are all great people doing brilliant work and writing interesting, insightful pieces. They all also have lower Technorati rankings than me. In some cases, it’s because they don’t blog that often, although each of them has posted at least once in the last two months. In other cases, it’s because they’re not as well known as they should be. If you’re not already following them, you should be. It will be well worth your while.    (MGA)

The In-N-Out Test

Esther Snyder, the founder of In-N-Out Burger, passed away last Friday. (See the Los Angeles Times obit.) For those of you who haven’t heard of In-N-Out, it’s a legendary burger joint that originated in California, but that’s now all over the western United States. I’m from Los Angeles, so In-N-Out is part of my blood (literally — I’ve eaten tons of their burgers), but it also served as an interesting business thought experiment when I was founding Blue Oxen Associates.    (L1I)

On August 14, 2002, The New York Times published an article on In-N-Out, one that had me asking several colleagues, “Would you rather have founded In-N-Out or McDonald’s?”    (L1J)

Here’s the tale of the tape:    (L1K)

  • They were both founded in Los Angeles in 1948.    (L1L)
  • In-N-Out remains privately owned. McDonald’s is a public company with franchises world-wide.    (L1M)
  • In-N-Out did an estimated $160 million in sales in 2001, meaning it has grown in revenues 10 percent a year. McDonald’s did $40.6 billion in sales in 2001.    (L1N)
  • According to a Fast Company article last year, In-N-Out is now a $310 million company. In-N-Out does very little advertising. McDonald’s spent $1.5 billion on branding in 2004, yet its per-store revenues are only slightly higher than In-N-Out’s.    (L1O)
  • In-N-Out’s menu is largely unchanged over the past 50 years.    (L1P)
  • Even Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation fame endorses In-N-Out.    (L1Q)

I started asking a bunch of my colleagues this question, and the responses were interesting. The most interesting response in favor of McDonald’s was that McDonald’s has had a positive systemic effect on society by giving millions of people their first introduction to the working world and management skills.    (L1R)

Can you guess my answer to the question? What’s yours?    (L1S)

Quality Korean Barbecue in Los Angeles

I’m about to wax poetic about Korean barbecue, but first, I need to clear up a misconception. There is much, much more to Korean food than barbecue. The reason there are so many Korean barbecue restaurants in this country is that Americans, not Koreans, are obsessed with meat.    (IS0)

Those of you who have read my previous entries about food may be surprised to hear me complain about this, because I clearly love meat. True enough. But I love food in general, and I find this narrow view of this widely varied cuisine annoying. That said, I also know that Korean food is an acquired taste for most Americans — we eat lots of spicy, salty, fermented, fishy foods — and that when folks ask for restaurant recommendations, they usually want barbecue.    (IS1)

For the most part, I’m ambivalent about recommending Korean barbecue places. The meat quality at most places is about the same, so I tend to differentiate them by the marinade (which I find too sweet at most restaurants), the quality of the banchan (the small appetizer plates that come with the meal) and other items on the menu, and the service. I, like many others, enjoy Brother’s in San Francisco for its wood-fired grills and friendly service, but I’m not blown away by the food there.    (IS2)

When folks ask me to recommend good Korean restaurants in Los Angeles, my hometown, I’m usually stumped. Unlike the Bay Area, Korean restaurants abound down south. Nevertheless, the same thing holds true: The quality at most of these places is about the same.    (IS3)

Thankfully, I’m stumped no more. Last night, my parents took me to ChoSun Galbee, located in the heart of Korea Town in Los Angeles. The food there is good. Damn good.    (IS4)

I knew my experience there would be different as soon as they brought out the raw meat, which looked amazingly fresh and beautifully marbled. Most restaurants marinate their meat overnight, which is actually overkill, because the meat is sliced very thin. The chef at ChoSun Galbee marinates the meat immediately, which has the added benefit of showcasing the quality of the meat. This is only a good thing, of course, if the quality of the meat is worth showcasing, which is probably why most restaurants don’t do it.    (IS5)

The shorter marination time did nothing to decrease the melding of the flavors, which was less sweet and slightly more complex than most restaurants. I was especially impressed by the daeji bulgogi — spicy pork — where I detected strong hints of ginger and cinnamon, in addition to the usual garlic, soy sauce, and gochoo chang (hot pepper paste).    (IS6)

In addition to the daeji bulgogi, we had bulgogi (thinly sliced beef) and galbee (shortribs), both of which were excellent. I thought they skimped on the galbee portions, but “skimping” is relative. I was so full, I could barely walk out of the place.    (IS7)

We also had the mul naengmyun — chewy noodles in a cold broth — which was okay, but not overwhelmingly good. As with the meat, the quality of the ingredients tasted high, which is usually as much as I can ask for when ordering naengmyun. (I’m a naengmyun snob, so take my review with a grain of salt. If anyone knows of a good place to get bibim naengmyun in the Bay Area, let me know.) Same went for the banchan — good, obviously made with decent ingredients, but not extraordinary.    (IS8)

(One reason naengmyun tends to be mediocre at most places is that it’s actually a North Korean specialty. As you can imagine, the recipes and techniques for making it well have not been widely disseminated. That said, it’s not impossible to find a decent bowl in Los Angeles, which is more than I can say for the Bay Area. It’s an absolute travesty.)    (IS9)

Apparently, I’m not the first to sing ChoSun Galbee’s praises. It’s a big restaurant with a beautiful patio area, and the place was packed. If you find yourself in Los Angeles, and you’re looking for good Korean barbecue, ChoSun Galbee is the place to be. It’s slightly more expensive than your average Korean restaurant, but the quality makes it well worth it.    (ISA)

Observations from Portals 2005

When I worked at Dr. Dobb’s Journal, I did the software development and IT conference circuit regularly. Most of those conferences were incredibly boring, but they were rarely a waste of time. What made them compelling were the attendees.    (IM0)

I’ve been spoiled in the six years since. Not only have the conferences I’ve attended been more diverse and interesting, many of them have exploited collaborative processes that emphasized participant interaction. That’s obviously an advantage if the reason you’re attending is to meet interesting folks. Additionally, most of these events were more about social good rather than corporate productivity. As a result, the energy is much more positive.    (IM1)

Attending Portals, Collaboration, and Content Management 2005 these past few days was a blast to the past for me, which was exactly why I chose to attend. I wanted to reconnect with the corporate IT community and discover what they were thinking about these days, especially regarding collaboration. I also wanted to test my ideas with this crowd, to see if I still remembered the language of this community and if my message would fly.    (IM2)

I gave the first talk in the collaboration track, and it was very well received, moreso than I expected. There was a snafu with the program, which listed my talk as, “Collaboration: What’s In It For Me,” when the actual title was, “Collaboration: What The Heck Is It?” One woman approached me afterwards and told me that she was originally planning on attending my talk, then saw what the real title was and decided to attend a different one instead. Afterwards, she ate lunch with several people who did attend my talk, and much to her chagrin, they raved about it.    (IM3)

Several people told me they enjoyed the interactivity of my presentation. That was intentional. It engaged the audience, and it gave me a chance to learn from them. My plan wasn’t to teach, it was to stretch people’s minds, to give them an opportunity to think about things in new ways.    (IM4)

Folks who know me well or read this blog regularly know how much I tout highly interactive conferences. I think there is a huge opportunity for such an event for IT workers. I heard very little that interested me in the conference tracks. The attendees were far more interesting than the speakers, and most of my learning occurred during the meals. Several people even said as much, completely unprovoked by me.    (IM5)

Some other observations:    (IM6)

  • I ran into a number of people who had been with their companies for 15 years or longer. One person suggested that the reason for this was that companies liked to put their most experienced people in charge of portals. It makes perfect sense. These folks have an innate understanding of the organizational dynamics, which portals should parallel.    (IM7)
  • Kaliya Hamlin suggested that people attending this conference would be really interested in Identity Commons. Sure enough, several people said they were looking for good Single Sign-On solutions. However, despite my active involvement and evangelism with Identity Commons, I don’t think Identity Commons provides what these people are looking for right now. The real value of Identity Commons as an identity solution is inter-organizational, whereas most IT people are dealing with intra-organizational problems.    (IM8)
  • I was blown away by the proliferation of SharePoint in organizations. During my talk, several audience members realized that they were all dealing with similar challenges with SharePoint, so they gathered afterwards to discuss. I discovered many others in similar situations. I mentioned this to some folks at the SAP Netweaver booth, and they said they were blown away by the same observation. SharePoint seems to be making real viral headway in organizations, largely from the bottom-up. Ironically, some IT people are expressing the same misgivings about SharePoint as they do about Open Source software.    (IM9)
  • I love warm, summer nights. Yes, I realize it’s still spring. An April evening in Phoenix is about equivalent to a July evening in Los Angeles.    (IMA)