Saturday, March 31, 2007

Crime in Guatemala

Crime is rampant in Guatemala. Vehicle robberies are so common that we couldn’t even get theft insurance. Murders and assaults are also through the roof. While Guatemala is a wonderful place to visit, we must never forget to pay attention to our security. One of our friends lost a car a few years ago in broad daylight outside a coffee shop that had an armed guard.

I went to a mechanic today to install a shutoff switch for the car. Many people in Guatemala do this to make their cars more theft resistant. In my case I tapped into the line running to the fuel pump. When the switch is off, the fuel pump is disabled, which means the motor will turn over but not catch. The switch is hidden in the cab.

I told the mechanic about some of the work we were doing with GlobalGiving. His reaction was interesting.

“There is a lot of poverty in Guatemala,” he said, “but Guatemala is not a poor country. We have tremendous natural resources. Our problem is bad government. If we do not improve our government then there is nothing we can do to permanently solve our problems.”

It is an interesting point. We have seen time and time again how countries that liberalize their economies and establish a good legal system prosper. South Korea, for example, lifted itself out of poverty in a generation. Is there any reason why Guatemala could not do the same?

Driving in Guatemala

We arrived in Guatemala yesterday. It is everything I remember. The people are wonderful and warm until they get behind the wheel. Then they are absolutely terrifying.

Crossing the border was very exciting. It turns out we hit the border on market day when hundreds of people from surrounding villages swarm into town and set up stalls to sell their goods. The stalls were of course set up right in the middle of the Pan American Highway so we had to drive right through the middle of a crowded street market to get out of town. The crowd was so thick we could only see a few meters ahead of us. Our only option was to keep inching slowly forward as people scrambled to pull tables and goods out of our way.

The highway from La Mesilla to Huehuetenango is in excellent shape but it is narrow and windy so it is very difficult to pass slow moving vehicles. The buses have a solution to this, which is to make the sign of a cross and then go for it whether they can see or not. This means that at any time you could turn a corner and be faced with an oncoming bus passing a double semi in your lane.

“The bus drivers are all escaped mental patients”, warned Lara. Needless to say I was very careful, but sometimes you have no choice but to take a chance. For example, when there is a vehicle parked in your lane, eventually you have to go around it whether you can see or not.

We had no problems, but Herb had a very close call. He came upon a vehicle broken down on the right. As he passed it an oncoming bus veered into his lane. The gap was so narrow that he lost one of his side mirrors. “It happens all the time”, said a mechanic I talked to.

Matt says that being a passenger in the bus is sometimes no better. “We were in the left hand side of the bus a few rows behind the driver” he describes. “Every few minutes we would feel the bus pull left, and then moments later it would pull violently to the right as something came whooshing past the windows at high speed.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Changing Minds and Saving Lives

One of the things I've come to realize over the last few years is that it is very difficult to change somebody's mind. This can be enormously frustrating, especially when you are convinced you are correct and you can't understand why other people can't see your point of view. As we've come to understand more about how the brain works we have learned that very few people actually form their opinions by examining and evaluating evidence. Instead, most people have fairly rigid mental frameworks. Information either fits into the existing framework, or it is discarded.

We visited a couple of Agros villages last week and learned first-hand how mental frameworks can mean the difference between life and death. I had always assumed that most cultures understood the link between clean water and health. It turns out that this is often not the case. It is remarkably hard to convince people that their drinking water may be causing them to get sick. Bacteria are invisible, and contaminated water often looks quite clean. It even tastes better then boiled or filtered water. As long as the water isn't obviously dirty it is very hard to prove that it could be linked to disease.

We can blame superstition and lack of education, but we aren't any better. What would it take to convince your parents to become vegetarians? Have you ever convinced somebody that their political or religious beliefs were wrong? People see the evidence they want to see.

How do you convince people that their water may be harmful? There is unfortunately no easy answer. You could try to educate the youth. You could drag a microscope into the field and show people the bacteria ( but this would be expensive and time consuming). You could hold classes for the adults (but they might simply not believe something they can't see). It's a remarkably difficult problem, and it kills tens of millions of people a year.

You can bring a village clean water, but you can't make them drink it.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

How to Bribe a Corrupt Mexican Traffic Cop

I got robbed by the Mexican police a few days ago. It´s an unpleasant experience. Mexican traffic police have a horrible reputation that is largely deserved. Unfortunately, foreign plates are like flashing lights on your car that say: "Easy money here".

It happens mostly in big cities. You are driving along in the dense, chaotic traffic and then you pass a police car. As soon as he sees your plates he turns on the siren and pulls you over. You panic. What did I do? Above all remain calm. Most likely you didn´t do anything and are simply going to be hit up for a bribe. We are used to thinking of police encounters as serious trouble. However, for many people in the third world the police have little to do with fighting crime. Their main job is simply to be a nuisance.

The police officer will come over and ask to see all of your documenation. He is probably hoping that you have misplaced some of it. If you haven´t he may find some technical problem with it that doesn´t make any sense. In my case they said I was guilty of tax evasion because I didn´t have a detailed list of all of the items I had brought into the country. According to them under Mexican law all tourists need to declare every item they take into Mexico with them. It´s nonsense, but it´s just plausible enough to be true.

If you are being hit up for a bribe the police will generally not be in much of a hurry to do anything to you. Instead they will probably go to great lengths to explain how much trouble you are in. They told me that my car would be impounded, the goods confiscated, I would be fined $2500 dollars and then deported from the country for one year. Wow. Heavy stuff. Fortunately, I knew that I hadn´t really done anything wrong, and I also knew that they were explaining all of this to me to try and increase the bribe amount.

While Mexico has much corruption there have been various efforts to clean it up and it is bad news for police to be caught harrassing tourists. For this reason the first rule of bribes in Mexico is to ask to get more people involved. A ploy that many of my friends have used quite successfully is to insist to be taken to the police station immediately. Corrupt police won´t want to do this because even if the charge sticks they won´t get their bribe. My friends won´t hand over their keys or cooperate in any way and will simply insist over and over again on going to the police station and dealing the with the problem there. This works almost every time. Of course if you have genuinely done something wrong this is the absolute worst strategy. Make sure you are in the right.

I unfortunately made a mistake at this point. The officers asked me to step out of the car and hand over my keys. At this point one of the two policemen took my keys and drove off in my truck. The other officer said it was going to the impound lot. I had no choice but to get into the police car and follow. Now I was worried that the officer in my car would take my camera and iPod which were loose in the front. I hadn´t had time to secure my valuables and I no longer had control of my car. I should have insisted on going to the police station before handing over my keys. In one moment of innattention I had lost my best bargaining chip. My job now was to minimize my losses. If I was too insistent on not paying anything they might just help themselves to my stuff.

Of course the officers had not yet mentioned a bribe or asked for money. I likewise needed to avoid being to direct. Here is roughly how the conversation went.
Me: "Clearly this was just an accident in my paperwork. Is there anything we can do to avoid all of this trouble?¨"
Officer: "Well. I don´t really know. What do you suggest?"
Me: "Maybe I could simply pay a fine to you right now."
Officer: "That might work, but it´s going to be very expensive. The alternative is a US$2500.00 ticket and confiscation of all the stuff in your vehicle. I think the fine would have to be at least US$2500.00."

At this stage I was much happier. The amount was ridiculous, but I now had confirmation that the whole thing was bogus and they just wanted a bribe. Unfortunately the other officer still had my car which was out of my sight and I was still worried about him looting the vehicle.

Me: "Well, I don´t have that kind of money and I´m sure once I explain it all tomorrow it will all be OK. I´m just trying to save myself a night´s delay. If it´s US$2500.00 then take me to the impound lot."
Officer: "Do you have a video camera. I´d take $1000.00 and a video camera."
Me: "Just take me to the lot. I´ll give you $50.00 to avoid all this trouble but any more then that and I´d rather explain it tomorrow."

We pulled up on a deserted side street. There was no sign of an impound lot or official looking compound and there were few other people. Not a good place to be.
Officer: "This is where we are going to impound your car. I´ll take you to the station and you can call the embassy and get a lawyer."

The officer the grabbed his radio and spoke into it. "Hi. I have an arrest for tax evasion and will be bringing him in shortly." I didn´t hear a reply.

Me: "Listen officer. I´m really sorry that I don´t have the paperwork, but I can´t pay you more then $50.00. I have a low limit on my bank card so that I don´t get robbed at an instant teller (true) and I already spent most of it on gas."
Officer: "Ok. Let´s go."

They drove me to the highway, I paid them $50.00, and they gave me back my keys. As I had hoped nothing was missing from my car. I suppose that by the complex logic of corruption, stealing from my car would have been wrong. I turned around to write down the license plate number so I could report them, but they were gone.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The New Face of Giving

The face of giving is changing and it is exciting to watch. Never have so many people been so involved in giving, and never have those people so actively managed their donations. While massive organizations like the Gates Foundation get most of the publicity, changes are happening at all levels. Donors are more involved and more goal oriented then ever before, and this is forcing charity organizations to become more transparent and more effective.

One of the biggest things we’ve learned over the last few decades is that smaller projects are often much more effective then larger ones. Take for example microcredit. Last year Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he created won the Nobel Peace Prize. It was well deserved. What the Yunus realized is that for many people poverty is simply a matter of cash flow. If you have no money, you can’t buy seeds, you can’t buy tools, and you can’t buy raw materials to make things to sell. It turns out that by lending poor people a tiny amount of money we can often give them the boost that they need to get out of poverty.

In many countries the poor are literally held in a form of slavery for lack of a few dollars. Because they have no money the only way they can get seeds or raw materials is to borrow them against a share of what they produce. In the end there is never enough left over to allow them to get break the cycle. Often the debts are passed on across generations. Children are born into debts of their parents. Grameen Bank gives loans as small as a few dollars that allow the poor a first step out of poverty. Amazingly, it does so profitably. It turns out that for the vast majority of people this first step up is all they need to start generating an income from which they can repay the loan and improve their lives.

The same principle applies to many charity projects. Often a small amount of money applied in the right spot can have a much bigger impact then a large amount of money spent more broadly. Not only is the money spent more effectively, but donors are also able to fund very specific projects that they are interested in. For instance, while I support much of the work of GreenPeace, I won’t give money to them because they are opposed to nuclear power which I happen to support. I need finer grained control over my giving.

Now this is changing. GlobalGiving and other organizations are providing marketplaces where smaller, more focused ideas can get funding. Donors are now able to find projects by area of interest and geographical location. For instance, through GlobalGiving you can pay for a year of education for a student in Indonesia, or buy renewable energy for Peruvian villages.

Donors have more options available then ever before, and this is enabling a new wave of tightly focused, highly effective charities. Never have we been able to do so much good, so easily.

Next week Lara and I are visiting two agricultural projects in southern Mexico. Stay tuned…

Friday, March 9, 2007

Once You Truly Understand...

Once you truly understand the problems that we face it is impossible to go back to your old life. I've studied climate change for the last year and I understand now just how much we stand to lose.

James Nachtwey, winner of a TED prize last night, showed us the human face of suffering. I've included one of his photos below. Allow yourself to truly understand that this is another human being. This person also has hopes, and dreams, and family, and people he loves. This person could be you.

This is the world we ourselves have made. How can we we not do something?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Check out this amazing website

The Coming Revolution in Transportation

It is a pretty safe bet that almost every time you run an errand, you are the only person in your car. It is also a pretty safe bet that for most of those errands somebody that lives close to you has been to the same place recently. Imagine the impact it would have on the world if we could somehow or other share rides with these people.

Robin Chase is the woman who is going to make it happen. She’s already done it once with Zipcar. She figured out how to make community car sharing work, and now people in a number of major cities can simply log into her website, find the nearest car, and hop in at an hourly rate.

I talked to Robin yesterday at the TED opening night party and I believe her idea is one of the most exciting developments I’ve seen in years. I’ve been thinking about car sharing for a while. Most cities have some form of ride-sharing program but it doesn’t work very well because of trust and convenience issues.

Robin has taken it to the next level and really thought about how to make ride sharing work. Her company is called GoLoCo and the website ( is going to go live today. GoLoCo is a company that couldn’t have existed until a few years ago. It combines social network, mapping software, and electronic payment systems to build a compelling application.

The first big problem of a ride sharing system is trust. GoLoCo solves this problem by using the social networking techniques pioneered by a wide variety of online communities like The idea is that when you sign up for GoLoCo, you’d encourage all your friends to do the same, and since you know each other you establish a trust network. Now you can decide just how far you want to extend an invitation to go to IKEA on the weekend. Do you want only your close friends to know, or will you take anybody in the neighborhood? This solves two problems at once. First of all, it helps get the system over the critical mass of users that is necessary to make it work, because hopefully entire networks of people will sign up at once. Secondly, it helps reduce the fear that you’ll pick up some kind of weirdo that you don’t know.

The less obvious implication of this is that it can turn errands into community building activities. Now you don’t have to go to IKEA by yourself: you can pick up a friend and go together.

The second problem of ride sharing is managing the routing. Robin admits that this was a much harder problem then she originally thought, mainly because she wanted to keep the system as fuzzy as possible. She says that her research shows that people have an enormous amount of flexibility in their schedules and that if you make the software too restrictive you end up tying people down more than they need to be. She wanted to make sure the software was flexible enough to allow you to say things like: “I’d like to go to IKEA any Saturday in the next month”.

The third problem is payments. GoLoCo takes care of this for you, so when you give a ride to somebody it automatically collects and transfers the money.

This is an enormous idea. With gas prices going up and the air filling with greenhouse gasses, we need to rethink transportation. Suddenly what used to be solo trips will become opportunities to pick up people in our extended circle of friends and share rides with them. Not only that, but we’ll earn money by doing it. The implications are truly staggering. Its ideas like this that make me think we have a hope against climate change. There are some awfully smart people in the world.

The Correct Reaction is Panic

John Doerr is the world's best known venture capitalist. He helped Google, Compaq, Netscape, Amazon, Intuit, and Sun. The man is a visionary, and his vision is clearly on climate change. He gave the most amazing TED talk this morning.

"I'm scared", he said. "I don't think we are going to make it." He told us how after hearing Al Gore at TED last year he decided to make climate change one of his priorities. He's spent a year looking at the problem very hard and he showcased some really big successes. WalMart, for example, is now one of the leading green companies. They are making huge cuts in their energy use and are spending a lot of effort on green technologies.

But John said that it isn't enough. He said that all of these efforts are dwarfed by the size of the problem. We need 50-80% reductions in the next 10-15 years to avoid catastrophe ( loss of 50% of species on the planet). We need a miracle.

His talk walk emotional and moving. He basically asked the community to help because he said he didn't know what to do any more. He left the stage in tears. He got a standing ovation. Needless to say, I'll be going to the breakfast tomorrow to see what can be done.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

First TED Session

The first TED session just ended and it was fabulous. Carolyn Porco gave a fantastic talk about the exploration of Saturn by Cassini. She heads the imaging team and her photos are at The most interesting thing she said is that the moon Enceladus has actually got organic compounds layer on fractures near the south pole. Even weirder, there is a plume of icy particles that jets out of this pole. They think that there may be liquid water under the surface, which would make it the first time we've found conditions suitable for life outside of earth.

Hans Rosling dominated the session with a fantastic set of his statistics. Check out his dollar street to get a really graphic look at different income levels. Hans Rosling pointed out that Africa today is at the same level of development that Europe was at in 1900. He says that he feels that Africa has come further, faster, then most other regions given that they were in the stone-ages 50 years ago. See some of his other amazing interactive charts here.

Hans also made some interesting points about seperating our goals from the means for achieving them. He says that economic development and education and good governance are not really goals that people aspire to. People want to be healthy, have culture, and have human rights. But economic development and good governance are the way we get culture and human rights.

Then he swallowed a sword on stage. I'm not kidding. What a funny, crazy guy.

Heading to TED

Today I’m going to the first day of the TED conference in Monterey, California. Lara is in Guatemala studying Spanish. TED is very expensive and for even one of us to go is an enormous luxury given that neither of us has an income now. Yet TED was so transformational for me last year that I can’t help but go once more. It’s the last vestige of a life where I could afford most of the things I wanted.

For those of you who don’t know, TED is a technology and design conference that attracts some extraordinary people. Almost everyone at TED has a passion for something. Many TEDsters run companies or charitable organizations. The man I sat next to on the plane on the way out has already sold eight companies and goes on archeology and dinosaur hunting expeditions in between.

The format of TED is a series of 20 minute lectures by some of the most exceptional public speakers in the world. The lectures are inspirational, motivational, and educational. In between the lectures is the best part of the conference- various social events that allow you to meet the other TEDsters. At TED everyone is treated as an equal. The person you talk to at dinner could as easily be the head of large technology company as somebody like me who simply has a desire to make a difference. You know they’ll have something interesting to say. It’s amazing how many great ideas you can get in just a couple of days.

The highlight of TED is the TED prize. Each year there are three winners. The prize has a decent chunk of money attached to it, but the true prize is that each winner gets to make a wish to the TED community. TEDsters then try to make this wish come true. As you can imagine, when you have a community that includes so many amazing people some incredible things get done. Take for example Larry Brilliant, who won a TED prize last year for his work in eradicating smallpox. Larry made a wish to build a search engine that would look on the web for signs of impending catastrophes like famines and disease epidemics. Google was one of the companies that stepped up, although lots of other people also helped. Larry now runs, the non-profit portion of Google, and it sounds like his health warning network is close to being launched.

Every successful person who has changed the world is just a normal person who had a dream. Its one thing to know this intellectually and quite another thing to meet some of these people in the flesh and see it for yourself. Matt Groening of The Simpsons is a scruffy looking man who wanted to make cartoons. Larry Page and Sergei Brin of Google are just a couple of young guys who came up with a fantastic idea for a search engine. These are brilliant and capable people, but they got where they are through their own skills. For a normal person like me, it is tremendously empowering.

Al Gore told us last year that there is no fire-brigade that will come and fix our problems. The challenges we face are completely outside of our experience as a species, and nobody knows how to fix them. It’s up to all of find the solutions and try to save the world. We can’t expect somebody else to do it for us. It’s a big wakeup call, and many TEDsters are at the forefront of making it happen.

It was at TED last year that I met Dennis Whittle, the co-founder of GlobalGiving. Dennis had a good job at the World Bank and gave it all up to start his own charity. It provided Lara and me with a wonderful way of getting started on our own mission to make the world a little bit better. Exactly one year later Lara and I have quit our jobs and we are on the road with the title of GlobalGiving Ambassadors. We will be visiting projects that GlobalGiving funds and writing about what we learn.

Lara and I don’t have millions of dollars or behind us, but we do know that we can make a difference. Hopefully TED will provide us with some excellent contacts as we set out on our volunteering trip. I know that we will be a tremendous asset to anyone we work with. I’m looking forward to seeing how far our dreams can take us.