Obituaries, celebrating life!

One would imagine that Obituaries are a morbid topic, after all it is all about looking back at someones life, after the event. However well written obituaries provide an interesting insight into the lives and challenges others faced before us, a historical record, indeed it is a shame that humanitarian and development workers don’t have an obituary ‘site’ imagine the wealth of experience and lessons it could capture!

Of course one typically only hears about the lives of fascinating and often influential people, as ever however it is the intricate stories of unsung heroes and mundane lives that I find particularly interesting.

Igor Sergeyev a military commander who rose to First Marshall of the Russian Armed Forces and Minister of Defence was sacked after the disastrous failed Kursk rescue attempt. As a General by simply being attentive, honest, responsible and focused on his job he is probably the one individual that cajoled, negotiated and badgered away to ensure that nuclear material from the huge arsenal of Russia’s long range nuclear weaponry did not go awry and leak into the underworld. Other recent obituaries by the economist include: Markus Wolf a former East German Symaster, a Jew, his Stasi team routinely outwitted its bumbling West German rivals. Bulent Ecevit a Turkish prime minister and poet who ordered Turkish troops into Cyprus and enjoyed a fondness for Hindu mysticism and Sanskrit verse. And Eric Newby a travel writer and fashion buyer who would travel on little but in the best possible taste. Like many of his generation served in the war and in his case was interned in Italian camps.

To get a cross section of American lives the New York Times provides a diverse cross-section, for example David Cockrun a comic book artist who re-invented the X-men and the Marvel Comic with other characters in the mid 70’s and before that worked on Superman, Batman and Flash. Or Rhodes W.Fairbridge who died at 92 in time to see his passion become mainstream. A pioneer on Climate Change in the early 1960s, he developed the Fairbridge curve, a record of changes in sea levels over the last 10,000 years. His graph showed periodic dips and spikes in levels, against a larger trend of rising ocean waters. Among other indicators it is considered to be early evidence of a larger trend in global climate change resulting in the melting of glaciers and continental ice sheets. In plotting his curve, Dr. Fairbridge looked at high-water marks recorded in fossilized dunes and reefs and later made more eclectic observations of climate fluctuation.

For a different view on a society check their obituaries, sadly they may be hard to find in your own language, when checking Arabic papers for this blog, I was unable to find any obituaries in English. This is sad since a chronicle of the past is an insight into the present and future

And you mustn’t forget those bloggers, The blog of Death is a rather unusual place to start, the TaxProf Blog and Jacks Blog are more typical. GoogObits will help you find list of obituaries and of course wikiobit a database of obituaries for everyone by everyone, and new media approaches are emerging Obit Earth encourages use of Google Earth to mark the place of significant events in a deceased persons life, and raises the intriguing possibilities of marking maps with pictures and other data! YouTube has many video obituaries.

After a lifetime of balancing family life, with emotional crises, illness, heartache, joy, pleasure and of course work. Perhaps there is a small measure of comfort in knowing that in some way we are having an impact on the lives of others like so many before and so many to come. But perhaps, just perhaps everyone of us leaves our mark on the world by simply getting on with our lives. Some may put this article down to old age, perhaps, perhaps it is due to experience in in-secure environments, rather I would propose that we should use reflection and celebration of others lives as an opportunity to learn and advocate the humanitarian and development work we are all involved in.

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“delete..” the one email key that counts

delete keyEmail the bane of our lives and of course an efficient time saver! Why is it that few people follow basic approaches of other forms of communication medium…

. Memo’s… in the good old days, a simple principle was one decision or subject one memo. Keep it focused!
. Memo‘s listing actions to be taking, assigning roles to individuals and responsibilities, copied to those who need to be informed.
. Letters… carefully addressed, polite clear and above all concise, perfect for formal communication.
. Telephone calls for regular contact, urgent issues and well, to keep in personal touch with people.

Here are the simple rules I live by…
. One subject, issue or decision per email.
. Clearly assign responsibilities to named individuals.
. Send to individuals who have to take action.
. Only copy to those who must be informed.
. Never use BCC, it can only cause problems.
. Never copy to individuals for no CLEAR purpose.
. When snowed under… phone for an update and… delete.
. Never expect reply within 24 hours, preferably 72 hours!

Some tips that I like from others:
1. If it takes 2 minutes to read – delete
2. If its not a response to ones own e-mail – delete (anonymous friend) he gleefully explained that others would phone if it were urgent!

Of course others have gone into this in depth detailed descriptions of how to write emails and use smileys, forget tips to University students , there is even Yale library netiquette, and Down under netiquette!. Of course career planners emphasise appropriate behaviour, but at the end of the day who has ever read, trained on or listened to advice on how to email?

I guess its just down to good old fashioned common! yep, the sad fact is that one could be spending hours reading and deleting pointless mails for a long time to come. Perhaps one should seek out an email extension that automatically deletes messages that will take more than two minutes to read, with a response explaining why it was binned… at least it’ll never include the boss, she is way too busy to send long mails!

05.12.06 Editorial – – It is now time to do so Merlin Manns Inbox Zero, links to a series of articles he has written on the topic and for the first time I shall be paying attention!

Inbox zeroAll Posts in the Inbox Zero Series
. 43F Series: “Inbox Zero”
. Inbox Zero: Articles of faith
. Inbox Zero: Five sneaky email cheats
. Inbox Zero: Where filters will and won’t help
. Inbox Zero: Delete, delete, delete (or, “Fail faster”)
. Inbox Zero: Schedule email dashes
. Inbox Zero: What’s the action here?
. Inbox Zero: Processing to zero
. Inbox Zero: What have you learned?
. Inbox Zero: Better Practices for staying (near) zero

Podcasts, not popular… but useful!

podcastIn truth podcasts are not popular, BBC reviews a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (Nov, 2006).

Internet access in the US is extremely high, out of 300 million people in the US, there are an estimated 207,161,706 internet users (Nielsen NetRatings).

However in it’s 5000 person sample the Pew survey found just 1% of respondents download a podcast on a typical day, with 7 to 12% claiming to have dowloaded a podcast. These figures have been consistent much of 2006.

Despite this the number of podcasts being distributed has exploded… in November 2004 Podcast Alley a show directory, listed 1,000 podcasts, today more than 26,000 and over one million episodes. Although usage implies a high percentage are discontinued it is evident that publishing a podcast requires minimal equipment and is simple indeed.

I could go on to quote all the hype of market growth, but it is frankly irrelevant, podcasts are an excellent medium for select applications (“MSF & Christian Aid …”, “Rocketboom, UNHCR & Refugees”, “Online video sharing….”, “Promote MP3’s, Zunes, i-pods …”).

The technology has simplified to a stage where any luddite (such as yours truly) can download podcasts from i-Tunes, they are free. In truth it is nearly just as easy to upload! Even I (ok, an adventurous luddite) with an Apple laptop and Garageband, prepared an (admitedly poor) audio podcast ready for upload to i-Tunes. Don’t forget you don’t need an i-pod, any MP3 player or computer will do. I watch all video podcasts on computer and listen to audio from the laptop as if it were a radio (“Pandora & Filter – Personal Radio Stations…”).

Forget the hype, play with podcasts, lets see how we can turn this tool to valuable applications to further humanitarian and development work.

Confabb, taking the ‘con’ out of conference

Organising a conference well is tough… focused on the content, who has time to worry about the web site, uploading content, organising for participants to review speakers, organise additional activities, or plan local visits, in short how do we maximise their input?

Reality is that conference logistics are too often outsourced, or provide a poor experience to presenters and attendees, content is delivered late, registration lists out of date, additional side shows not added, presentations and speakers are not rated, assessments are after the fact… Confabb seeks to change all that providing a superficially simple interface to enable one to organise and publish a conference online with full flexibility to enable management of contacts, speakers, attendee registration by administrators, presenters and physical or virtual attendees.

Launched this month, the first iteration is designed to be useful to researchers, however over the next few months it will develop into a practical tool and interactive platform for all stakeholders… or if you like, a conference wiki!

For a fee, and fraction of the current cost to organisers, they will provide the full web site for the conference. Presenters will be able to manage their own sessions and post session content, everyone can critique, rate and review presentations, debate on discussion boards, post relevant articles, or add side shows as they are organised at the conference itself. With a Filckr link participants may upload their own photgraphs for sharing. Overtime speakers at more than one event could point people to their ‘Confabb page’, listing contributions over the years.

I suspect we have all had disappointing experiences of online tools for conferences (I tend to avoid them), however they should be intellectually stimulating, not administratively challenging. Confabb seeks to enable conference attendees and regular users to find events or people with similiar interests (oh dear, not online networking again!), and in theory at least support intellectual contacts and debate.

Unusually it has been set up over six months by four part-timers… at no cost! Like most tech start-ups it is currently very US centric, but that doesn’t need to remain the case (see Scoble blog and video demo). Confabb hopes to take online support to conferences to a new level, this is one US start-up that could potentially support our operations.

Humanitarian and development workers are criticised for not using simple, intuitive interfaces for software tools (see investing in the interface and why humanitarian end users suck, but we are renowned for interaction, comment and community. This tool appears to reduce one weakness and build on our strengths!

“Out of Damascus”

Our intrepid Logistician made it, (see Sidney to Syria “I got a ticket to ride”, “It’s been a hard days night” and “A day in the life”), only to find after buying a car that he is not permitted to travel outside Damascus… this was his first escape, a tourist trip in the ancient country of Syria.

I arrived in Latakia, which is on the Syrian Mediterranean coast approximately 400kms from Damascus, in the afternoon of the Saturday and caught up with one of the military observers, we had a few beers and a meal together. Clearly it was time to look around the place and went to investigate what was on offer. He had been there a day or two and the highlight of his explorations was finding an Internet cafe and the DVD shop. So it was time to look around and see how the Syrian nightlife was. Imagine our surprise that the first place that we went, turned out to be a den of iniquity, .

The next day we had great plans for visiting the sites of this historic area where the crusaders achieved a dubious reputation for betrayal and vengence, fortunately we got back to the hotel just after 1:00 AM and as we said our goodnights, we arranged to meet early, breakfast and get on the road to look at some of the significant historical points of interest on the way back. After breakfast, we planned our visits and would set off after a quick stop over since I needed to get some fuel.

We were travelling in convoy with the UN vehicle in front, running interference and me following close behind. Suddenly he stopped at what was once a fuel station, it now however looked like something that would be left behind after the holocaust. Not even cockroaches would have felt comfortable there.

I pulled up at the fuel pump and after much posturing and hand gestures, it was determined that I should move to another pump. As I was talking to my friend I noticed that the guy filling the tank was having some difficulty in getting the nozzle into the fuel tank. To tell you the truth I never even thought it was strange he then patrolled the area and found a small stick to aid in his attempt to refuel the car.

I mentioned to my friend that the price of fuel here seemed to be a hell of a lot cheaper than Damascus and didn’t understand why. He finished filling the car and we set off, well my friend did. I made it as far as the drive-way entrance to the main road. This tall, inept, idiot had filled the car with Diesel.

I wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. To say that I flew out of the car would have done me an injustice. All I can say is that if it was over a hundred metres, you would now be talking to the new world record holder. Using all of the restraint I could muster, that is to say hurling threats and abuse to all of those that were within listening distance, I call up the true marital status of his parents and if indeed he was actually intellectually challenged. Fortunately someone spoke English, and acted as an interpreter on my behalf. It appears that somehow, after leaving the road and entering his establishment, my car had miraculously changed from a petrol driven vehicle to one now powered by diesel. At least this is what he had said that I told him. No wonder the fuel was cheap and the nozzle didn’t fit.

I now was left with a small problem, the tank would have to be drained, along with the fuel lines. No problems, my only now too helpful bowser attendant said that he knew someone up the road that could help me. Suddenly he couldn’t do enough for me. He arranged for the guy that was interpreting for us, to tow me a mile or so up the road to a mechanic. In between all of this my friend had returned to the scene of the crime, because he had realised after a few miles that I wasn’t following.

Off we went to the mechanic, which in fact turned out to be a car washing station. So before my temper got the better of me and I ending up killing some poor unfortunate. I called my assistant in Damascus 400kms away to act as a go between. It appears that they would leave my car at the car wash and get the mechanic (who was 50 metres from the fuel station) and bring him to the car. Decent I suppose. Then the guy that towed me, wanted a little something for his assistance. All he got was a curious look, a lesson in Australian vocabulary. He left empty handed, but certainly blessed with a new way of saying goodbye.

Time was dragging on and it was looking very slim that we would act as tourists. After two hours my car had been drained of the diesel, which I must admit, was cunningly siphoned, collected and spirited away by the people in the car wash and never seen again. The lines were now flushed with petrol, which was ironically purchased from the same fuel station that created the mess in the first place, and an amount poured into the fuel tank. All was fixed, but it had cost me another 1500 Syrian pounds. I thought the best moment of it all was when the people from the car wash asked me if I would like my vehicle cleaned.

So my time for adventure and exploring was spent between an establishment of dubious reputation and a car wash. Either way they both cleaned me out by hook and crook. Maybe next time I will be luckier and get to see some of the sites. Oh and I never got any pictures either .

by A. Logistician (aka Catweazle)

Rocketboom, UNHCR and refugees

Rocketboom … one of the most popular trivia and news podcasts available on the web published footage from floods and refugee camps in Kenya with UNHCR (21st Nov 2006). A refugee recounts his image of the impact of islamists from Somalia.

As reported in “Online Video Sharing…” and “Alive in Baghdad” … this highly accessible medium is making it ever easier for the young in the west to find out what they want when they want… as new generations increasingly shun TV for the Internet, or formal media for community and peer approaches. potential important tools for advocacy indeed!

Rocketboom can be accessed at their website or downloaded from i-Tunes, it presents 3 to 5 minute news clips for free, daily. Produced at very low costs, only distributed online (available world-wide), its ‘status’ has been achieved purely by word of mouth, and it seeks to engage its audience in an online dialogue, see WikiBoom.

New ‘participatory’ media is truly beginning to change the manner in which news and information is obtained, limitations to web access may not ensure video becomes common in developing countries, but there is no doubt that it will become an ever more important medium for communiction, information sharing and advocacy. Its great to see Rocketboom democtatising news broadcasting.

MSF & Christian Aid blaze podcast trail!

Is it our role to advocate for change, communicate needs on the ground, promote intellectual debate and ensure education and awareness of different communites of the challenges faced by others?

Fortunately there are trail blazers out there testing new media to and its effectiveness for the rest of us. Podcasts that can be accessed on i-tunes, or downloaded from websites, dramatically further communication and information sharing. MSF

MSF has demonstrated three prominent approaches. MSF Voice podcasts in the build up to the XVI Aids Conference in August 2006 along with daily discussions on key topics and demonstration of how MSF drives advocacy at such conferences. Regular advocacy and discussion of field activities and focus of programmes in different countries. Finally, MSF Frontline is a monthly podcast enabling individuals to catch up with MSF operations. programmes, facts, figures and personal testaments. MSF Voice and MSF Frontline are seamlessly integrated into the web site for ease of access.

CAChristian Aid after using podcasts for internal reporting opened their podcasts up to the public, as reported by humanitarian.info and Full Circle. Some examples include fascinating mini series on different campaigns, such as the Beat goes on a march against the policies of IMF, WB and the North in controlling the South and a demand for friendly and inclusive policies. Daily podcasts for a field visit to Haiti truly set a standard for everyone to match! It reflects the naevity of foreigners, gives a detailed awareness of challenges faced in the country and yet the character of people and their cultural legacy comes through. Finally like MSF, Christian Aid uses this medium to present interviews, debate and discussion on critical issues.

In a former piece I argued that podcasts should be taken into the office, Christian Aid and MSF have illustrated that staff with basic training can use podcasting instead of paper reports, perfect for disseminating information in an accessible form to staff, they also provide the perfect advocacy platform. Advocacy organisations take note!

Internal communication, information sharing and advocacy are critical elements of management in all humanitarian and development work. MSF and Christian Aid provide different exceptional examples of how podcasts can be applied in both settings… the race is on!

03/12/06 Editors note:

Apologies to UNICEF who have been operating podcasts since February 2006 with a mixture of UNICEF news and programme reports now in video and audio!

The UN also started a twice daily news podcast in November (sorry can’t find any show link), and but worry yee not this phenomena is catching on, UNESCO has put out bids for video podcast proposals!