Away We Go

After a brief delay so as to hit our optimal weather window, this morning Nepenthe is setting sail from Ventura, CA. We’ve got our forecast for the first eight days, and it looks like we’ll have winds of 10-20 knots out of the North-Northwest for at least our first week– right where we want to be. We are lucky to have, as they say in the Navy, “fair winds and following seas.”

As we make our way, I’ll be updating our coordinates via SSB radio daily. You can track our progress on this map here:

I’m off to go hoist the mainsail, so I’ll leave you, for now, instead with words from our old friend Homer:

Grey-eyed Athena stirred them a following wind,
soughing from the north-west on the winedark sea,
and as he felt the wind, Telemakhos
called to all hands to break out mast and sail.
They pushed the fir mast high and stepped it firm
amidships in the box, made fast the forestays,
then hoisted up the white sail on its halyards
until the wind caught, booming in the sail;
and a flushing wave sang backward from the bow
on either side, as the ship got way upon her,
holding her steady course.
Now they made all secure in the fast black ship,
and, setting out the winebowls all a-brim,
they made libation to the gods,
the undying, the ever-new,
most of all to the grey-eyed daughter of Zeus.
And the prow sheared through the night into the dawn.


The Digital Age Steps Softly into Burma

In a recent blog post here and at, I offered my analysis of what the changes in Burma’s ICT sector say about the country’s political transition, and what effects it may have on the same. Think of this as an appendix—less interesting for those into politics and narrative, but perhaps more interesting to dataheads and those working on Burma. Much of what has been recently written about the country is already out of date, and though this, too, will soon be obsolete, my intent is to paint a data-rich picture of the current state of the ICT market in Burma, and offer an anecdotal take on the ICT usage patterns of Burmese civil society at a fleeting moment of transition.

When we talk about ICT use in Burma, it’s important to remember that, for now, we’re talking about a tiny portion of the population. A recent Gallup survey found that 3% of Burmese households have a computer, and less than 1% have an internet connection. Even in urban areas, those figures only rise to 9% and 2%, respectively. As I wrote in the previous piece, low connectivity is the dual result of poverty and policy:

The handful of internet service providers operating in Burma are controlled by a cabal of political cronies, and the government has set high prices to prevent its citizens from accessing the global information network. Until recently, installing a home or office broadband connection cost a ludicrous $1,500—this in a country where the gross domestic product per capita is about $1,300, and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. In the past year, connection fees have dropped to a still outlandish $700. For those who can afford a connection, prices for ongoing access remain high: unlimited web access costs about $155 per month.

Adding to that: in Yangon, a WiMax package allowing usage of up to 12 GB per month costs $90 USD, a 6 GB package costs $55, and a 3 GB package costs $35 USD. As a result, public cafes have been the primary access point for most Internet users in Burma: Gallup found that 89% of those few Burmese who had recently used the internet did so in a café. Even there, prices limit most potential users to relatively brief sessions, while slow-as-molasses speeds and frequent power outages can render the service all but useless. An hour-long session at an average Internet café costs less than a dollar, but even this is prohibitive for average people in Burma.

Recently, there has been a shift toward mobile internet access: many of the civil society leaders I met in Yangon don’t have a wired or WiMAX connection in their home or office, but use laptops tethered to mobile phones to access email and the web. This option is pricier than a session at an Internet café, but far less expensive than a dedicated home or office connection—and though Freedom on the Net reports that the mobile internet “barely functions,” it’s still often faster than a “high speed” connection. Oddly, the advent of mobile Internet has left many Internet cafes in Yangon sitting empty, as they are less convenient than mobile web for those who can afford it, yet still too expensive for poorer citizens.

The data on mobile phones are slightly more encouraging: According to Gallup, 14% of Burmese report having a mobile phone, and almost 30% of urbanites own one. Two years ago, only 3% of Burmese had a mobile: this rise is probably due to drops in the government-fixed price of a SIM card. As I wrote:

While a SIM card in neighboring Thailand costs less than $1.50 USD, acquiring a GSM SIM in Burma costs at least $250 USD: a dramatic drop from the $500 USD it cost until recently.

We should expect the quotient of mobile phone users to continue rising at a rapid clip: Burma’s state telecom agency announced last month that they would privatize the telecom industry, aiming to achieve mobile penetration of 75-80% by 2016. It’s an ambitious goal, but not unrealistic: nearby Cambodia has seen year-on-year growth of 12-14% in their mobile penetration over the past five years, with a current rate over 70%.

Currently, though, Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT), the state-run telecom operator, maintains exclusive control over the country’s mobile networks. MPT offers both CDMA and GSM networks, with CDMA offering higher call quality at higher prices; most mobile phone users opt for GSM. Chinese-manufactured handsets—particularly Huawei devices running Android—dominate the market, and are priced at global levels.

For those able to afford a SIM and handset, prices for service are high but not outlandish: a text message costs 25 Kyat (less than $0.03 USD), and a minute of talk-time costs 50 Kyat (less than $0.06 USD). Despite the popularity of text messaging in other, similar contexts, and the manageable cost of the service, Gallup reports that only a third of mobile phone owners regularly send SMS. This is largely attributable to the fact that it remains difficult to type in Burmese on a mobile device. Only in recent versions of Android is a Burmese font and keyboard available, and SMS has yet to take hold even with these users. On older and cheaper phones, users must transliterate to Roman characters, which is impossible for many Burmese.

Mobile credit “scratch” cards are a recent addition to the mobile market—they became available in 2011. Before the arrival of these cards, mobile phone users could only top up their accounts at an MPT office, which many people found inconvenient.  While the advent of these cards is a step in the right direction, they still pose a barrier to many poorer users, as they are not available in denominations smaller than 10,000 kyat—about $11 USD—which is more than most Burmese are able to spend at one time.

For those Burmese who sign up for Internet access, buy time at an Internet café, or purchase a SIM card, the government imposes strict registration requirements, collecting the name and other identifying information of the customer.  A black market of less expensive, unregistered, prepaid SIMs exists, but not many mobile users opt to purchase their SIMs from unlicensed resellers, in part because of the hassle of changing phone numbers every time the SIM runs out of credit.

Because of better support for Burmese fonts and better in-country marketing, Gmail is the ubiquitous email platform in Burma. On the web, Facebook is rapidly growing in popularity. The younger generation of activists and journalists are particularly active on the social networking platform—one college-aged volunteer at a political advocacy organization boasted of having 20 Facebook accounts that he checked regularly. Even political parties are starting to use Facebook for outreach campaigns. Gallup found that among the small number of internet users they interviewed, 80% had used Google to find news and information in the past month, and 40% had used Facebook.  These two services far outstripped any other online news source.

Looking forward, I am relatively bullish about the growth of connectivity in Burma. The government seems genuine in its desire to expand the economy and reduce poverty, and the recent drops in price for web and mobile access are likely baby steps toward a less regulated market. It’s reasonable to expect mobile penetration to reach 60% or even 70% in the next 4-5 years, and while internet access will grow more slowly, civil society organizations based in the major cities should expect to have more affordable, more reliable service in the coming years.

This is Burma

I’m nestled on a bench in the back of a truck between a young woman, her face swirled with golden thanaka, and an old man, his sarong-like longyi knotted at the waist, woven rice hat on his wrinkled brown head. Our conductor hangs off the back of the truck, his longyi, too, whipping in the draft, shouting at pedestrians, suggesting they might want to get on his truck, with an urgency typically reserved for wartime and natural disasters. Someone signals something, and the truck jolts to a halt; everyone falls on everyone else, and then springs back upright. Four teenage boys clamber to the roof of the truck, followed by two sacks of rice and a bicycle, and we lurch back into motion. Here in Burma, where cars drive and drivers sit on the right side, we make a daring swerve around a stopped truck overflowing with pineapples, and driver thankfully finds no oncoming traffic save a few motorbikes and an old woman with a basket on her head who obligingly dodge us, and we’re speeding onward.

Twante (Twantay? Thwan Te?) is a small town a few hours from Yangon notable primarily for a substantial pagoda that may or may not have three hairs from the Buddha’s own scalp buried deep within. We pulled into the town square, and I stumbled down the road toward the pagoda’s golden spire, jutting above the soot-gray cement-block buildings in the town center. The people of Twante looked on with perplexed amusement, and I smiled ingenuously back. I did not get far.

Kyaw Soe is a driver (motorbike) and tour guide (specializing in rare white people) in Twante. He is a devout Buddhist, taking every shrine and temple as an opportunity to explain that ‘my Buddha is very powerful.’ He takes a keen interest, also, in the miracles of ‘your Yesu’, who, he generously notes, is also very powerful. Twante, he explains, has Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, but no fighting. He is justifiably proud. Kyaw Soe is small, but claims to be able to swim across the Twante canal and back again without taking a break. His friendly smile has one black tooth, and the rest are stained red from his occasional habit of chewing betel.

He took me around Twante on the back of his motorbike, showing me where the town’s potters crafted and fired their work, and taking me to a cotton-weaving house, where three adolescent girls sat at looms in a small nipa hut, their hands and feet pulling strings and levers on the bamboo contraptions in practiced rhythm, weaving shoulder bags to be sold in Yangon. The bags are strikingly beautiful, in bold colors, with designs drawn from the crafts of Burma’s ethnic minorities. They can each make four bags in one long, hot day.

Kyaw Soe has a wife and two children, and also supports his in-laws—both his parents died a few years ago, in their 40s. His father died from drinking too much whiskey. His mother died from walking to the fish market every day for 40 years, which, Kyaw Soe illustrates via gesticulation, caused her insides to fall apart. They are buried together in the town cemetery. Kyaw Soe is unsure if they gave enough money to the monastery to ensure a trip to the sky.

We went to the market, where Kyaw Soe seemed to be very popular among the fish ladies, who ribbed him and cackled at his jokes as they lopped off fish heads with machetes. One expansive woman, squatting behind piles of uncomfortable live ducks tied up at the feet, her midsection spilling out over the top of her loosely wrapped longyi, suggested to Kyaw Soe that he give me to her for the afternoon. I am not exactly sure what she wanted to do with me, but I’m glad I wasn’t turned over.

Kyaw Soe had no idea that America was on the other side of the earth from Burma, and was flabbergasted to learn that it was nighttime in New York when it was daytime in Yangon. He demonstrated that he can say ‘thank you’ in English, French, Spanish, Italian and German, and then asked how we say it in America. He thought it odd but fortunate for us both that we Americans choose to speak English. He asked whether America was near Italy and sought to confirm that New Zealand and Switzerland were neighbors. He is also a die-hard Manchester United fan, adores Wayne Rooney, and thinks David Beckham is a prettyboy. Premier League football: the common human experience, if there is one. (N.B.: Among the European football jerseys I saw walking around Burma, Arsenal kits easily outnumbered all others combined. We’ve got a beachhead, boys.)

We went on to the docks, where the morning catch had already been brought in (and had their heads chopped off). Workers sprawled idly in the humidity, waiting for the afternoon boats and the break in the heat the day’s rains would bring. An ancient woman in a low bamboo hat smoked a green cheroot and cooked noodles over a coal fire, hurling threats and insults at the kids horsing around on the dock. Inside the fish house, a serious, mustachioed man sat counting money, piles of cash burying his desk. On the next dock, shirtless boys played soccer, the goal two wooden posts at the end of the pier. An errant shot—or a goal—meant a leap into the Twante canal, which connects the Yangon River to the Irrawaddy River, and is part of the network of waterways that reticulate Burma’s delta region.

The whole delta region was, until last year, quite closed to foreigners, and Twante would have been a tricky place for someone of my complexion to visit. The Burmese government had hoped to hide from foreign eyes the devastation and destruction left behind by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, but evidently redevelopment has progressed enough to reopen. This was just the last in a series of suspect policies following the cyclone. The first and most devastating was the junta’s initial refusal to accept any international assistance, which was followed by grotesque incompetence in the government’s own response. As a result of this proud posturing, about 140,000 people died before the junta decided they had better stop counting.

Devastated by the plight of their countrymen, many Burmese from Yangon and elsewhere rushed to the delta region to help in any way they could. But the government took affront to this, as well, and threw many of these would-be volunteers into prison. This fiasco came less than a year after the 2007 uprising, in which high gas prices led to popular discontent, which led to angry protests, which led to a crackdown wherein Buddhist monks in their saffron robes were shot in the street by scared teenagers in military uniforms under orders from their general and president. I met university students who were detained for aiding the victims of Nargis, and then convicted of participating in the uprising. They spent over three years in Insein Prison along with the bloggers, journalists and political leaders who had organized and publicized the Saffron Revolution; they were just recently released, and can now continue their studies, though hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up.

Kyaw Soe and I got on famously, and at the end of his standard tour, he offered to take me to a temple where, as I understood from his description, the Buddhists had been using the same latrine for 1,000 years. We rolled out of town, his motorbike coughing and hiccupping, and rolled past fish farms with rainbow netting and verdant rice paddies. After a brief stop to review the husbandry practices of Burmese fish farmers (evidently, to ensure production of sufficient eggs, the farmers net together one female fish with two males; Kyaw Soe gave a lurid laugh at what must be going on in the muddy water), we pulled into the walled garden of a rural monastery.

He led me up into an ancient teak building sitting on stilts beside the canal, and introduced me to an aged monk who sat shooting jets of crimson betel juice into a spittoon. At the front of the vast room were walls of glass, and behind that wall was a small glass case surrounded by plastic flowers and colorful blinking lights. Inside the case were two bronze Buddhas, no more than a foot tall, beautiful and roughly worn. My confusion was revealed: when digging a new latrine for the monastery, the monks had driven their shovels into these two Buddhas, which turned out to be over 1,000 years old. After admiring the Buddhas and sitting for a spell with the monk, I was escorted outside to take a look in the pit where the Buddhas had been found, preserved as a hole in the ground for years.

The afternoon grew dark, and a cool wind signaled the impending daily storm. Kyaw Soe offered to spare me a return trip in the tin can truck, and drove me back to Dala, where I could catch my ferry to Yangon. As we drove, the skies opened up, immense raindrops smacking us in the face. We swerved through a herd of buffaloes crossing the street, and dodged the jets of betel juice emitting from the windows of passing buses. When we arrived, soaked and dripping, Kyaw Soe suggested we dry off in the roadhouse and have a beer. So we sat, rain pounding the tin roof.
As we sat, I showed Kyaw Soe my driver’s license, which he interpreted as a sort of union card, and was thrilled that he and I shared the same profession. He eagerly asked how much money a driver like me earned in an average day, and then subtracted out my estimates of necessary living expenses in Washington Township: 30 dollars per day for a house, 20 dollars per day for food, and figured that I probably profited more than the four dollars he might bank on a good day. Then he asked how much money Wayne Rooney makes per day, and resolutely disbelieved my estimate. Then he asked how many townships America has. We went on and on.

We sat for hours, drinking Mandalay beer, snacking on fried prawns and peanuts. The Olympics came on—it was morning in London—and the whole bar turned to watch, in live HD, the first heats of the two-man rowing competition. The bar hooted at the failings of the Americans, rooted tepidly for the Chinese (not out of any particular fondness for Burma’s sometimes imperial patron to the north, but more out of Asian solidarity), and watched with indifference as brawny European men won race after race. Eventually, I bid Kyaw Soe farewell (and paid him for his services), and boarded the ferry back to Yangon, where a freshly tidied room waited for me with clean sheets on a king-sized bed.


David Brooks: Red Herring in Sheep’s Clothing

David Brooks wrote a column this week in which he describes two kinds of inequality in America. He’s got your “blue inequality”– evident in big coastal cities, this is the difference between the top 1% and everybody else– and then he’s got your “red inequality”– to be found in the heartland, where people with college degrees do just fine, and people without college degrees get, basically, dick.  Then comes the argument:

If your ultimate goal is to reduce inequality, then you should be furious at the doctors, bankers and C.E.O.’s. If your goal is to expand opportunity, then you have a much bigger and different agenda.

I’m not going to dwell on Brooks’ ridiculous geographic delineations– non-college graduates living in Manhattan aren’t living the high life compared to non-college graduates in Scranton.  Nor am I going to waste too many pixels on the sneering tone he adopts elsewhere in the article, implying that the wealth of the 99th percentile is getting publicity because the “liberal arts majors” in percentiles 93-98 are jealous. I’m just going to rewrite those two sentences another way:

If your ultimate goal is to reduce inequality, then you should be furious at the doctors, bankers and C.E.O.’s. If your goal is to stop global warming, then you have a much bigger and different agenda.

Indeed I would.  Because they’re two different problems. Two totally different solutions. And what Brooks has done, in classic Brooksian style, is throw a big fat liberal red herring: You’re a piddling bourgeois if you’re focused on income inequality when there are more important issues out there, he says. As a matter of fact, I will gladly acknowledge that there are bigger, deeper issues than the spiraling incomes of top 1%– indeed, the very issue that Brooks raises is one of them. But that doesn’t mean income disparity isn’t an issue:

What that chart (cribbed from MoJo) is saying is that in the past 30 years, the top 1% have tripled their income, while everyone else has made, at best, a modest gain. In the past decade, incomes for the bottom 90 (nine-zero) percent of workers have actually dropped, while the super-rich have prospered.  And many of those same super-rich– I’m thinking of those in the employ of certain  large financial institutions– actually contributed to the very real economic pain suffered by everyone else.

This is an issue, and being furious seems like a pretty rational response.  Of course, being furious isn’t the solution– the solution is more tax brackets and higher rates at the top– but being furious, and, yes, taking your fury to Zucotti Park where you can put it on public display has proven a reasonably productive step in putting this issue on the table.

And Brooks casually acknowledges that it is an issue, but uses his platform on the Times Op-Ed page to undermine and obfuscate it by pointing to another issue altogether, one liable to pluck at the consciences of his bourgeois liberal arts readers. In the words of HAL 9000: Don’t do that, Dave. It’s disingenuous.