Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Going to the Zoo

- So in addition to Aquanuts Divers and the Maru Joy and I are going to start managing the Mzoozoozoo Backpackers Lodge located in Mzuzu, the regional capital of northern Malawi. It should be fun. I'm building a website for the place and will have a link up shortly. Mzuzu is a nice mountain city and an essential transport hub for many of northern Malawi's attractions. The Maru is working with the fisheries department of Mzuzu University so it will be great to have the chance to spend a little more time up there. Stay tuned.

- At Aquanuts Divers we've got a new dive instructor and research assistant coming to help us out this month. Campbell Louw is a native of South Africa with a Phd in biotechnology and a passion for underwater worlds. We are excited to have him and look forward to the contributions he will make to our research programs. Welcome aboard Campbell!


Sunday, February 26, 2012

An odd mix I am (for an American)

Time for some navel gazing.

So I got caught up in a political conversation the other day and it had me thinking.

One of the most striking differences, it seems to me, between liberals and conservatives is their understanding of how individuals and their societies interact and affect each other. Liberals instinctually tend to believe that individuals, their actions and their thoughts, are heavily influenced by the societies and material circumstances they inhabit and consequently if you seek to change an individual’s behavior you need to work at the societal and economic level.

Conservatives instinctually tend to believe that societal problems are the cumulative result of poor choices by individuals. Consequently if you want to change behavior you need to lay out a clear moral code and then hold individuals accountable to it.

In practice most people, whether instinctually conservative or liberal, however believe the other side’s argument to some extent. This is a good thing. Most liberals still believe that individuals cannot entirely blame society or their poverty when they make poor choices. And most conservatives recognize that economics and societal pressures do, whether they like it or not, affect individual’s choices.

Another common difference between liberals and conservatives is the former’s tendency to have a more inclusive, malleable, and pragmatic ethical worldview and the later to have a more traditional, legalistic, and theoretical one.

I confess that I find my personal worldview mixes this all up however. While generally having a conservative tendency to focus on individual agency I also have a pretty liberal ethical worldview.

This gets me in trouble with liberals because they sense I lack their enthusiasm for fighting against socio-economic injustices and it makes me personally uncomfortable to associate with conservatives who I find to be dogmatic and intellectually lazy.

You might call me socially liberal and fiscally conservative but that doesn’t quite do me justice. I’m not just fiscally conservative ( though I am), I am also socially conservative to the extent that I tend to be believe that people have a lot more agency than liberals give them credit for and yet I also believe that ethical rules are heavily culturally and socially constructed, and in fact should be.

Luckily however the liberal and conservative paradigms as I have outlined them above are really only appropriate for the USA and possibly Europe. Here in Africa and also in Asia the picture is not the same. Liberals and even conservatives don’t really exist and the West’s inability to recognize this has got us into a lot of problems I think. But that’s the topic for a different blog post.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Gov. responds, back in Malawi, and other News from the Beach

So in regards to the little venting session that is my previous post the the Consular Section Chief at Cape Town Claudia Baker kindly responded. Thank you and here is her response in full.

"I have received your email regarding our policy of not allowing pick-up of passports and citizenship documents at the Consulate. We have this policy for several reasons. First, when we did allow pick-ups several years ago an astonishingly large number of Americans never returned to pick up their passports or reports of birth abroad. Some individuals would respond to repeated requests to return to pick up their documents but we do not have the staff to track who had returned for pick up and to subsequently make repeated attempts to contact the individual. Others, in spite of our efforts, never returned and we were left with valid passports and other valuable documents, which presents a security risk.

In addition, admission to the Consulate is by appointment only for security reasons. Therefore, in order to pick up a document, an American would need to book an appointment on-line prior to coming as we cannot leave passports with front desk staff. This presents problems for several reasons. First, it is difficult to know the exact date on which a passport will be ready for pick up as there any many automated checks that need to be completed prior to terminating processing, therefore booking an appointment for pick-up would be problematic for the customer. Second, if many people were booking appointments to pick-up citizenship documents, our available slots for those with initial applications could become congested.

I hope that I have answered your inquiry regarding unavailability of a pick-up option to your satisfaction. I am sorry about the other inconveniences that you experienced while adding pages to your passport. However decisions such as the price of various services e.g. extra pages are set worldwide by the Department of State in Washington DC and we have no discretion to alter these prices based on local circumstances. Our exchange rate is set monthly by a central authority and due to systems issues can only be changed by this central authority once per month. I will follow up with our cashier to see if he can obtain adequate small bills to be able to make change for those desiring to pay with dollars.


Claudia Baker

Consular Section Chief

Cape Town, South Africa

This email is UNCLASSIFIED."

So beyond blaming careless U.S. citizens for she cites, as predicted, security concerns, systems issues, and distant centralized authorities. The great thing about citing something as a security risk is that there really is no way to argue against it besides simply saying they are wrong particularly when a government is saying it. We are having the same issue trying to get my wife a green card. For that she needs to go through series of insulting medical checks, criminal record checks, and interviews. Why? Well amongst other things for "security." As if my wife, a cute little Korean girl, is going terrorize the U.S. But when dealing with America, especially for foreigners, you are guilty until proven innocent.

How proud I am to be an American.

Rant ended.

-On a much more positive note WE ARE BACK IN MALAWI! And it feels so good. Our trip to Cape Town was productive on many levels but its nice to be back on the beach with my fishes and I am excited about this new year. We have a lot of cool things planned.

-Also we are in the job market again for another Research Assistant and Dive Instructor for Aquanuts and the Maru Research Center. Applicants will preferably have a masters degree in coastal or lake science, environmental management, ichthyology, or a related field. Applicants should also be Divemasters or willing and able to be trained as one. Those with only a bachelor degree but who have experience with population and biodiversity surveying and mapping will be considered. Remuneration will vary according to applicant’s qualifications. Send your CVs to

- Last but not least we will be saying goodbye to Monica. She has been a great help in getting our research programs at the Maru up and running but alas must move on. She's moving to Ecuador and we wish her all the best.

How proud I am to be an American.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Government created monopolies, inefficiency and venting from Cape Town

So we've been quiet for the past few weeks during our road trip down to Cape Town but we're still alive. The drive down was pretty uneventful. Zimbabwe is looking much better than I expected. With the conversion to the dollar the store shelves in Harare at least are full. The roads were good all the way down except for a brief 100 kilometre stretch in Mozambique and our car performed admirably. However by the time that I'd made it through to Zimbabwe my passport was worryingly full, I had only one half-page left. Why do so many African countries insist on using full page stickers to admit you in? Surely if a nice quarter page stamp is good enough for South Africa it's good enough for Mozambique or Zimbabwe.

Luckily Americans can get pages added to their existing passports at most US embassies. I am in the process of doing it right now. Unfortunately its been a bit of a mission. I first enquired at the Cape Town US consulate if indeed they could add such pages. They said yes but first I would have to make an appointment online and print out confirmation of having done so. With that confirmation in hand I went to the consulate this morning, filled out a form, and went to the cashier. The fee is $82 US dollars (ouch!). Having brought both South African Rand and US dollars with me I asked the cashier what exchange rate they used and was told 8.5 SA rands to 1 US dollar. This rate is woefully out of date, the current market rate is 7.5 to 1. So paying the fee is US dollars would have been better except for the tiny issue that the US consulate didn't have sufficient US dollars to give me change in US dollars when I handed him a 100 dollar bill. I asked if he couldn't simply give me the change in rands? He said no. So I had to pay in rands at the woefully outdated exchange rate so that it actually cost me the equivalent of 93 US dollars. Yeah for me. Having paid the cashier I returned to the counter and was then told that I could not receive my passport until tomorrow. I was surprised at this because when I had first enquired about adding pages to my passport I was told that it only took a couple hours to complete the process. Yeah again. Resigned, I asked when I could pick up my passport tomorrow and was told that I was not allowed to return to the consulate to pick up the passport but instead had the privilege of paying DHL, who conveniently had an office right in the lobby, an additional 90 rand (about 12 dollars) to express mail it to my hotel in Cape Town the next day. Yeah again!

Who thinks this is reasonable? And how could they arrive at that conclusion? Why does the US consulate in Cape Town not have US dollars sufficient to give me $18 dollars in change? Don't know. And why couldn't they simply have given me the equivalent in rand? Don't know. And why does the US consulate force people to use a private company, DHL, to give them a service that they don't even want? Don't know. But I'm going to make a meagre effort to find out by sending these same questions to the said US consulate. I am expecting a lot of useless platitudes about the importance of security, accounting issues, and assurances that they really are doing their best to serve me, etc. We'll see if I'm right. I'm going to post their response here if/when I receive one.