GeekMour—A Science, Technology, and Career Blog

A Science, Technology, and Career Blog.




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Happy Holidays!!! (Resuming Late January 2015)

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Dear GeekMour Fans,

Hope everyone is having a festive holiday season! My sincere apologies to all readers who have been expecting new content on the site for some time now. I'll be resuming my interview series and column posts late January 2015 and will continue with the site consistency pre-fall 2014.

Stay Tuned!


Women in STEM: Tech Is The New Black Feat. Anarghya Vardhana


Moderated, Edited, and Condensed by Shubuka Mainsah. Transcribed by Arianna Wassmann. 

“Everything comes down to family and friends for me and that is never lost no matter what professional, ambitious goals I have. At the end of the day, I do what I do so I can be around the people I love and so that other people can be around the people they love in a safe, happy, and wonderful way.”

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I did a lot of science fairs growing up and a lot of research in number theory focused on prime numbers in high school. After high school, I came down to Palo Alto to go to Stanford where I majored in STS (Science, Technology and Society) with a concentration in Math. While at Stanford I wrote a thesis on the political economy of cell phones in the rural sector of developing countries. I wanted to understand the role of cell phones in developing countries—specifically in the rural areas—in empowering women, and increasing economic opportunities.  After Stanford, I worked at Google for three years on a variety of products – AdWords, AdWords Express, and Google+.  After three years at Google, I spent a year working as a product manager at a payment start-up. That wasn't the best fit for me so I left and I currently feel very lucky to have my dream job.

I work at Ushahidi; a technology social enterprise start-up based in Nairobi, Kenya but with a global team. We build data management and data visualization software which can be used for crisis response and by organizations providing very basic services like access to water and energy. I also do venture capital and investment with Rothenberg Ventures based in San Francisco and that's also incredible because I have a beautiful blend of both sides. I'm on the venture capital side where I get to invest in companies, work with many companies, and see them grow. On the flip-side, I get to build and launch my own products at Ushahidi which is absolutely incredible. When it comes to my personal interests, I run a lot and I love it. I have run five marathons and plan on doing many more. I am an Indian classical dancer and have been for twenty years. I really love traveling and above all I love spending time with my family. 

You spoke briefly about your work at Google. Could you elaborate on the work you did?

At Google, I was a program manager which is a mix of product and project management and got to work on a variety of products as a result. Towards the latter part of my career I was able to oversee the international launch of a product from conception to completion.  I worked closely with engineers and designers to understand what the product was, how we would roll it out, what countries we would launch it to, and what it means to launch internationally. I got an amazing experience and opportunity there to work on launching products and that became my professional passion: launching new technological products to new countries specifically the developing world. Many times technologies are launched socially irresponsibly and some people think you can drop a technology in a country and then suddenly everything will be better. I am an advocate of launching technology responsibly; understanding the social fabric, the context, the culture, and how people will interpret and use the technology is important. At the same time you can't build a customized version for every single person. It's an art to understand what the minimum viable thing you can build is that everyone can understand, use, and appreciate. That's the beauty in figuring out what your product is going to be. I got to do that at Google and continue to do that.

What was the most interesting experience you had while working at Google? What about the not-so-interesting/challenging experiences? How did you overcome those?

When I was working on AdWords Express, I was able to recommend new countries we should launch in to our executive leadership. That was a very interesting and exciting experience for me. I got to do a lot of research on all of the things I just talked about and delivered the results to leadership. I learned a lot because it’s not one or two but thousands of things you have to think about before you launch in a specific country or even a specific city. I also worked on the Google’s Ideas team—Google's think tank—on information and access projects to areas that have challenges accessing information. I really appreciated Google's interest and passion for truly giving access to information to people no matter where they are. I think that's what ignited my passion for going the more social enterprise route.

The biggest challenge at a company that big is finding opportunities because they won’t fall on your lap. You have to be very proactive. I’d ask myself: How do I go seize these opportunities? How do I meet interesting people? How do I learn? At the end of the day, I want to learn, grow, and get better. You can feel a little lost at a big company and I overcame that by being very proactive, emailing people, knocking on doors, and seeking out opportunities. That brought me a long way and allowed me to work on really exciting projects.

Let’s move on to Ushahidi. What is your role at Ushahidi and have you worked on any interesting projects so far?

I am Product Manager and I am currently working on launching version 3 of the core product—a data management and data visualization product. I recently spent two weeks in East Africa doing user experience research to understand our user base and to figure out what the product we will be launching to them will be. It was an absolutely incredible experience. I was in Ifakara; a small village in Tanzania. I didn't have access to hot water nor water sometimes nor electricity. We had to drive ten hours through the savannah to get there. Working at Ushahidi is a really cool experience because I've gotten a wide variety of users. Being a nonprofit, we're very limited on resources and engineers. It has been a challenge figuring out how to balance the work and making sure everything gets done in a timely manner while delivering high quality products that meet our users’ needs. I work with an incredible team and everyone's trying to solve lots of different problems. It's exciting! I was in Paraguay with one of the organizations we're working with and they're doing incredible work. They're trying to solve poverty in Paraguay and it is really rewarding to enable them and provide them with the software they need to do their job. What I appreciate about Ushahidi is that we don’t pretend to understand the problems in every single country or say "hey we're just going to give you software and it's going to figure itself out!" I really love that.    

I have a question on the VC (Venture Capital) side. Do you have a finance background as well and would you say a finance background is critical for someone trying to get into VC?

I have zero finance background. I just have a very strong passion for start-ups, a good understanding of what start-ups do, and how they can succeed. When it comes to how critical a finance background is, I’d say it depends. VCs look for a variety of things. You have to bring something to the table. There are some people at my firm who are finance whizzes; they are incredible and add a lot of value in that way. I add value in a different way. I can strongly evaluate products, understand what they're building, identify the strengths and weakness, and make recommendations. It depends on what role you want to play. Either way, it's really helpful to have worked at a start-up to understand what works and what doesn't work. A lot of things you may lack you can learn on the job if you have good teammates who are willing to teach you and coach you along the way.

What skills/traits have been helpful for you through your career so far and what advice would you give someone interested in the technology sector/pursuing a STEM career?

There are people who are super technologically savvy but also people who don't really get it. Being able to understand technology and communicate it in an effective manner to others is a really valuable skill. Prioritizing and making decisions quickly have served me very well especially in the start-up world where things change all the time. You get a lot of things thrown at you and I've been successful by thinking through them quickly, making priorities, and decisions. One thing that is extremely important in any career is the ability to take criticism, learn from it, and make yourself better without being personally offended or sensitive about it. That is something I'm still working on. I appreciate it when people give me candid and honest criticism/feedback but it can still be hard. Every time I've asked about it, it's made me a better person, a better coworker, and has been better for me as a whole. I appreciate that. 

I constantly work on understanding the core of the technology I’m dealing with at any point in time. I'm not an engineer so I have to work extra hard to do that. I think it's very possible for non-engineers to have a very successful and wonderful career in technology. You just have to be willing to learn and put in the work. That’s something I do every day and I encourage others to do that. You don't necessarily need to learn how to code but you should understand what the capabilities of the system are, what language your product is built in, the challenges your engineers face etc. 

What are some of your career goals?

I am excited to help people who are working on making the world better. It could be through giving them technology or through funding them. I'm excited to be a part of that. Professionally, I would like to continue building products and continue investing in companies. I really like advising and mentoring so I'd like to continue doing that. A particular passion of mine is focusing on how to bring women and people of color into the entrepreneurial and technological space. There is a huge lack of those two demographics, especially women of color. I would like to continue being an advocate and potentially a role model in that space. In addition, I want to work toward figuring out the stigmas that are preventing people like us from getting into technology and entrepreneurship and how I can be a person in a position of leadership or influence to help break down those barriers.

You highlighted the point that you’d like to be a role model in the technology/ entrepreneurship space. Have you had role models in your life who helped shape who you are today?

One of my managers at Google—Michelle Hurtardo. She's half Colombian and was absolutely amazing. She's one of my biggest role models because she came to Google very young and was hired as a manager. She was a rockstar! She did everything and did it well. She was efficient and was a kind/good person. She was always available to mentor and coach but never fell behind on her work. She cared so much about the people who reported to her and I loved that she was very invested in our personal growth. I loved that she was very competent, creative, smart, and could solve any problem. I hope to be like that someday. I am still in touch with her and she still continues to play a big role in my life.

Another person I really look up to is Mike Rothenberg—founder of Rothenberg Ventures. I look up to him because he is completely disrupting the venture capital space. We're a venture capital start-up that's been around for about two and half years. People don't typically start venture capital funds when they're 28yrs-old, but he did and we're doing well. We've invested in 60+ companies. He is the kind of person who goes on to achieve what he wants and the best part is that he will do it in a moral and ethical way. He does not tear anyone down but instead brings people up and that's very admirable. He is a white male and is super committed to getting more women and more people of color into the entrepreneurial and technological space. We definitely need allies like him who understand that people grow up in different settings with different sets of opportunities and you can't fault them for that. You just have to give them a chance. I love that he has that attitude. 

What is your life mantra/something you live by?

Everything comes down to family and friends for me and that is never lost no matter what professional, ambitious goals I have. At the end of the day, I do what I do so I can be around the people I love and so that other people can be around the people they love in a safe, happy, and wonderful way. That is one big thing. I have to credit Lance Armstrong for the second. I say if you are tough, every hill is flat. In life, we're going to encounter so many hills, mountains, and crazy challenges, but if you're tough they aren't challenges anymore. You'll be able to overcome them. You'll see the hills as flat and you'll be able to battle your way through them. 

Thank you so much Anarghya for taking the time to speak with me! It was such lovely interview! I'd like to circle back on the point Anarghya brought up about launching socially responsible technologies and understanding the social fabric and technological landscape of the  target environment. I think that is equally applicable in a broader context: careers, personal growth and development, projects you name it.  It's always important to understand who the end "consumer" is so that we are building a useful "product" that can be appreciated. Let's take on the world in a more consciously responsible way, shall we?

A Bientôt!


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Women in STEM: A Little Crazy Doesn't Hurt Feat. Julie Maison

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Moderated, Edited, and Condensed by Shubuka Mainsah. Transcribed by Arianna Wassmann. 

“People kept telling me it was insane and that I shouldn’t and couldn’t do it and said I was going to fall off! That was extra motivation for me to make it happen. People should have more faith in others and shouldn’t be negative influences. If someone is going to fall, let them fall just make sure they take adequate precautions instead of telling them they can’t do it.”

Tell me a little bit about yourself.      

I’m Julie Maison. I was born and raised in Yaounde, Cameroon and I graduated with a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and a M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT.  I started working at Intel as a test R&D engineer shortly after graduation. As a test R&D engineer I fuse modules; that is I set the configuration of the chips we create to one configuration even though there is a range of configurations they could be set to. In terms of hobbies, I love taekwon-do, learning languages, and Senegalese drumming. I’d also like to create a lot more things. I made my own bed which I am really proud of. I didn’t get to create enough when I was a kid but it's something I really like doing. I think about it every day especially in terms of solutions for development in Cameroon. I have a list of everything I want to fix and I could keep going for hours and won’t get bored.

How did you get interested in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science?   

There are two stories, in one I somewhat fell into it and in the other I got interested in it.  I liked physics and the sciences in general when I finished high school. When I went to MIT, I really didn’t know what it meant to be an engineer. I wanted to study physics but I didn’t want to be in the lab all the time because that was my stereotype of what physicists did. I was told that Electrical Engineering was going to be like physics, but won’t require me to spend so much time in the lab so I did Electrical Engineering. I took my first computer science class freshman year and hated it but in my senior year I got to do some web development and that was insane! Seeing the things you could do with programming and understanding what it did, made it click for me. From then, I actually got a lot more interested. My favorite things at work are those that require Scripting/Programming/Computer Science.

Could you elaborate on what you do as a test R&D engineer and how you are applying your background in that?

My group is called a module and we create a set of tools that perform the function—fusing—accurately, repeatedly, and to scale. Our tools are used in places where Intel has factories and we make sure that they have only a tiny amount of error to meet Intel's requirements for quality and quantity. A module engineer (test engineer for my module) is somewhat like a project/program management job; Getting everything that you need in one piece to function perfectly right.  There is an electrical side, a practical side, and a programming side so I apply electrical engineering and computer science directly in my job. Even though we outsource some of our designs, we have to analyze everything and make sure it works. We also have to create more efficient systems for people to use and do the analysis to make sure everything done is backed by data. That’s an overview of what we currently do.

You talked about your love for creating things. What is the best thing you’ve created so far (school or post-school) and in addition to that what was your favorite class in school?

My favorite creation from class was the plasma tweeter. It’s like a ball of fire that fluctuates with sound; a speaker that is made of plasma. To be able to transmit sound, you need some sort of vibrating, outward-going medium so you can use plasma as a speaker. I had never done or seen anything like that before. It's a high voltage device so it's really expensive. It fluctuates with different things that people say. After college it’s my bed.  This probably sounds dumb but I wanted a hanging bed. I saw one and wanted one just like that. Everything looked too standard and when I sat in my room it didn’t feel unique and didn’t make me feel at home. I’m not saying there are hanging beds in my house back home but it’s something I wanted. People kept telling me it was insane and that I shouldn’t and couldn’t do it and said I was going to fall off! That was extra motivation for me to make it happen. People should have more faith in others and shouldn’t be negative influences. If someone is going to fall, let them fall just make sure they take adequate precautions instead of telling them they can’t do it.

I had a good number of classes I loved in college but my favorite was my signal processing class. I have not used the knowledge ever since but the professor—Oppenheim—felt like a family member and was very down to earth. People respect him a lot in his field. He was very humble and encouraging and I think all professors should be like that. If you know something you should find a not-so-egotistical way of transferring it. The fact that he could do that really impressed me. He was my favorite professor and it was my favorite class just because of the experience. There was another professor who was also a leader in his field who comes in as the second favorite. Things were very stressful in college so having people who were humble enough to try to understand all students and not feel superior about being a professor at MIT made thing easy. It was more about the experience than the class itself.

You mentioned that prior to college you were really interested in Physics and enjoyed it a lot. How did your background help you through your academic career and in your life? More so, what do you think would have been good resources to have that were lacking?

This is something bad but I’ll go ahead and say it. I remember there was a notion that U.S. education was not as good as the education back home in Cameroon. There was an additional confidence in coming from an area with more knowledge. I think Chemistry is specifically taught excellently at home. I remember in class people would create their own compounds. Our class was so good at the subject that we would come up with quizzes for ourselves and I think that helped. I remember asking why we were being taught things in high school because I had already done them. I’m very certain that at least the first two years of chemistry in college were already taught in high school. I think when it comes to some courses like chemistry and mathematics we do things right.

In terms of what is lacking, I think there is a lot. In spite of the fact that we have a good education system, there are a lot of things we could do to improve it. There is a lot of memorization at home, I did a lot of that and had great results in some cases but that isn’t learning. We need to move from that method to one which involves understanding the material. Chemistry was one of the things we practiced a lot more so that’s why Chemistry was helpful and maybe Biology. Students need to be led to understand things and think for themselves instead of going with the teacher’s answer. People are different and we don’t give enough time for people to learn.

When you talked about your favorite class and professor it brought a new question to mind which I want to ask you. Who are some of the inspirational role models in your life and how have these role models helped shape who you are today?

There are three categories. The first category is very cliché but it’s composed of my parents and my younger brother.  I want to focus on my younger brother because the structure at home is very hierarchical and most people who are more experienced think they can’t learn from someone who is younger. He is not in the top of his class but he has something I really want in people—creativity. He is very creative and actively pursues what he wants. He is currently working with a friend on a venture called “The African Shop” which sells African gear to people overseas at a decent price. He is also a computer scientist, participates in hack-a-thons, and seeks opportunities which most people don’t. He is extremely hard working and does more than I do, which inspires me to do more. He is such a huge influence and he doesn’t even know it but he’d be happy to know. Moving on to my parents, they are also very hard working and have gone to great lengths for us. I remember when my dad stayed up till 4 am to make sure my interviews were accurate.  I know parents generally make sacrifices for their kids but to me it’s really important to have people by your side.

There is a public policy professor at Harvard—Calestous Juma—I also look up to. I met him in an interesting way.  I loved spending time with Africans at MIT because they were family away from home. I’d send out an email inviting everyone to the movies or to engage in some activity and one day this guy responded and said “I like that you’re doing something as an African at MIT because Africans at Harvard aren’t”. Turns out, the guy is a science and technology advisor to presidents all over the world, is on the Board of advisees in the same field for the US, and a lot of other things you’d never know he did. He is very humble and down to earth and would invite all of us to his place just to chat. I love that with him, it’s more about substance, genuine care, helping people, and advancing the world.  The last person is Chimamanda whose last name I can never pronounce. She became a role model after I watched her TED Talk on feminism. What she said really resonated with me and was so perfectly phrased.  She was able to perfectly articulate things I cared about and wished everyone knew especially about creating equal opportunities for everyone. I have not read all of her books yet because I have not had the time but she has been a role model since then. Those are the three people/categories: Family, the professor, and Chimamanda.

What are some of your career goals?

That's a good one. This is something I had to write down for a class and still trying to articulate.  I always say that if people would let me be the president of Cameroon, I’d be happy but I don’t even want that for myself. There is so much I want to fix. I know I can’t fix them all but I’d like to improve different types of systems (education, infrastructure, commerce, tourism etc.) in Cameroon primarily through Computer Science. Staying in one location and only helping my immediate family members does not make sense to me. I’m lucky that they are all self-sustainable so that is something I don’t have to worry about. I don’t know how yet but I’ve been doing my research. Things can be improved and people’s lives could be improved and the potential to be able to change them is the reason I studied engineering.

What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing EE, CS or another STEM degree?

There is a lot one can accomplish with a degree in STEM so don’t underestimate what you can do with it. The first thing is not making assumptions like I did about physicists being “locked up in a lab” and be open-minded. The second is to question everything and keep questioning even when you think you know all there is to know about it. Also don’t let yourself be deterred by those who tell you not to pursue STEM because it’s hard. Others have done it so reach out to them and ask for advice. If this is something you feel you should be doing, just do it. There is too much you can do with STEM for you to not even give it a try.

Any advice for people gearing toward CS or EE specifically?

If you’re gearing toward CS, something good to remember is that it’s similar to getting someone from a different country to understand you. You are just trying to get a machine to understand you so drawing a parallel between a person and a machine really helps. That was an “aha” moment for me. When it comes to EE I’d advise people to not be discouraged by the fact that theory doesn’t always match what happens in real life. It’s not the end of the world and sometimes figuring out the interactions between different components and why there is a mismatch is fun.

What challenges have you faced in your career and how did you overcome them? What about the highs in your career?

I like the results of making systems more efficient. I’m currently working on a major project to reduce the amount of time it takes to extract and analyze data. I was able to reduce it from taking two days to a process that can be completed with a button click! Everyone loved it and also loved its aesthetic so that was something I was happy about and was a huge high recently. I love when I get highs like these because it makes me want to move on to the next thing. My lows have nothing to do with STEM but come from my interactions with people. Interactions create a community so people who are not humble or are complacent or those who go to extremes of not doing their jobs are difficult to deal with. I’ve learned to deal with them and I’m also learning to stay calm when I’m angry.

What is your life mantra/something you live by?

There is a quote by Steve Jobs which goes “The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do” and another quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson which come close to my life mantra. I can’t remember everything about the quote but the beginning of it says “To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends…This is to have succeeded” He talks about appreciating beauty, finding the best in others, being ourselves and leaving the world better than we meet it. Staying crazy and making sure I improve the world with my craziness is what I try to do. The second quote talks about beauty in the world and reminds us that our happiness is not dependent on another person’s happiness.

Thank you so much Julie for taking the time to speak with me. It was such a lovely interview! Many people are dissuaded from pursuing their passions because they internalize negative messages from people who tell them they aren't up to the task. Thank you for pointing out the need to push through it all if that is what one feels strongly about.  The beautiful quote from Ralph Emerson challenges all of us to redefine success and what it means to us. Let's all take sometime to carve out our meanings of and paths for success and leave footprints for others to follow. 

Toujours mon plaisir, 


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Tracks to Loops: The New Age of Rails

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As promised, this week’s post will be on a much lighter although relevant topic. I have experienced a couple of frustrations while traveling through Africa. Other nations outside Africa have been able to provide relatively inexpensive methods of transportation but my experience traveling from one African country to the next has been at best, trying.

About a year and a half ago, I was planning a trip to Lagos, Nigeria from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. I browsed online for plane tickets and after talking with various airline agencies one reoccurring theme I picked up was: TRAVELING IN AFRICA IS EXPENSIVE (for me atleast). The distance by road from Ouagadougou to Lagos is 1052 km, which is comparable to the distance by road from San Francisco to Phoenix Arizona, but the average price quote I got for the Lagos trip was about $1000 USD. With similar trends in many parts of Africa, it seems more affordable for one to travel outside of Africa than to travel within. 

If air travel is so expensive, what other means of travel should be developed on the African continent? In this post, I want to explore state of the art railway systems that are either being implemented or designed. Although none of these might even be applicable to the African context, I think it is a good means to generate/inspire ideas on how to improve travel throughout the continent.

High Speed Rail (HSR) systems utilize trains that travel over 120 km/hr, they have been widely installed in Japan, Russia, France and U.S. 
France set a new standard for railway travel, the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) is one of the fastest HSR trains if not THE fastest in the world. At 279 km/hr, it makes traveling within France and Europe faster, seamless and fairly inexpensive. But even this great feat, of high-speed electrified trains, now seems minimal to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop or Japan’s MagLev trains. 

The Hyperloop

Although it is still at the conceptual phase, the hyperloop is similar to HSR in that it offers a quicker means of land transportation between cities. Proposed by Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla Motors – check them out and fall in love with the cars), the Hyperloop is a pressurized capsule carrying 6 to 8 people. Each capsule/ train will carry people through a steel tube to a given location. Theoretically, each capsule can travel about 1220 km/h (760mph). Think of how an air hockey puck moves and now you can visualize how each capsule will glide over an air cushion at high speed. The key technology here is i) magnetic attraction to accelerate the capsule and ii) maintaining a slight vacuum ahead of the capsule which optimizes for speed. With the hyperloop, one can travel about 610 km (San Francisco to LA) in 30 minutes or get from Ouagadougou to Lagos in slightly under an hour (how awesome would that be!).
The hyperloop can also be faster than conventional trains because friction between the tracks and the train itself is eliminated. Also it weighs less and should move easily. Although this type of train is far from being built (due to cost and proof of concept by prototype), it does show that rail transportation is a force to be reckoned. 

 Super Magnetic Levitation Train 

MagLev or Magnetic Levitation trains, which are much closer to implementation than the hyperloop, are gaining more interest. By 2027, Japan should have a MagLev train leaving Tokyo. MagLev trains use superconducting magnets on the train guideways to induce a current that should cause the train to levitate a few mm above the rail.  This levitation again minimizes friction and energy loss between the train and track. As a result, a MagLev train also moves faster than the current HSR. Tests on Japan’s MagLev train prototypes have shown speeds of over 500 km/hr.

With the existence of HSR, MagLev trains and maybe one day the Hyperloop, this  tells me that in most regions in Africa, the power of rail is under-wielded to provide easy passenger transportation between African countries. Although railway projects are very capital intensive, regional cooperation between countries can help reduce the cost burden per nation. If one of these technologies is leveraged to connect 4 key cities in Africa, (located North, South, East and West of Africa,), I think this would boost travel in Africa and potentially business too.

Hopefully someday with one of these technologies, I will be able to grab lunch with friends in Nairobi and get to Accra in time to check out its buzzing nightlife.

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Developing In(ter)ventions: Soap Operas and Reducing Conflict

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Last week I showed you an invention I thought was cool, this week is about the flipside of my column, the social psychology intervention side. Today I'll explore a social intervention that I learned about back in college, one of the first that got me interested in this stuff.,
We often look to role models to help us decide what actions to take in life. Kanye West is one of my greatest role models. I look to him whenever I need some confidence, or when there is a situation where I need to hype myself but I feel uncomfortable doing so (i.e all situations where I need to hype myself).  He gives me an example of how to act when I am in an uncertain situation. He shows me what type of confidence will rile people up, and what type will add power to your deeds.

The intervention this week is based on the power of having models that can show you how to act in uncertain and uncomfortable situations. Role models that act against society’s norms create change in and through those who follow their example. That’s simple enough, we’ve seen it throughout history- the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, slave rebellions etc.

However there has been much research in psychology showing that generally people want to belong to social groups, and thus they are apt to follow the standing social norms. Acting against the norm leaves one open to criticism, rejection and possibly even danger. How then do we change the norms? How do we change beliefs?

The Intervention:
Dr. Elizabeth Paluck, a social psychology professor at Princeton, developed this intervention to determine whether media (through modeling behavior) could shift (1) personal beliefs, (2) perceptions of social norms and (3) actual behavior; for a population struggling with intergroup conflict and mistrust.

Her target population consisted of people in 12 communities in Rwanda in the years following the brutal Rwandan Civil War ( Dr. Paluck in her manuscript described many communities after the war as ‘facing a monumental crisis of survivors, returned refugees, and accused killers are obliged to live side by side in their old communities…[and] open discussion of ethnicity or of Rwandan history that strays from the official government version is effectively prohibited’.

Her research aimed to use media to ease some of these tensions and open spaces where people could discuss what they were experiencing. As in any psychological research, she had a control group which was given a treatment that should have no effect on the three measures above; as well as an intervention group which was given the treatment expected to have an effect.

The research team travelled to Rwanda where they randomly assigned 12 communities to listen to one of two radio soap operas:
“Participants in the intervention group gathered weekly to hear Musekeweya (New Dawn), the story of two fictional Rwandan communities that closely resembled Rwanda’s own ethnic groups. Characters crossed group lines to form friendships and to challenge leaders who attempted to sow violence. (In the Rwandan genocide, leaders abused their power to arouse aggression.) Participants in the control group gathered weekly to hear a soap opera about reproductive health and HIV prevention called Urunana (Hand in Hand).

After one year of following these soaps, intervention group participants more strongly endorsed cross-ethnic marriages and dissent against authorities than did control group participants. The intervention group was also more open to talking about their traumatic experiences and the mistrust that lingered in their communities.” 
 - Radio Shows Stop Hate (Stanford SPARQ blog:

Who Designed It and What Makes It Effective?:
Both the intervention and control shows were written, directed and acted by Rwandans. The soaps provided stories that were close to (but not identical to) common community issues caused in the aftermath of the war. The shows were delivered over a medium (radio) that was used in a group, and that many communities have access to.
Rwanda (
The use of a locally created show is so effective in this case because listeners can attach themselves to characters that are like themselves.  When you can see yourself in a character, the script they provide seems to be more relevant to your context. The characters effectively modelled new norms- of crossing ethnic lines and standing against violent leaders.In doing so, they provided a new script, one that ran counter to the prevailing norm.

The way in which this script was delivered is also powerful because it does not directly tell people what they should do. Direct suggestions of obviously counter-norm behaviour are often met with defensiveness; but providing similar but not exactly analogous scenarios gives listeners the choice to apply this script in their own lives. Choice is very important in changing human behavior. A person can be forced to do something but if the force is no longer applied, they may no longer want to continue that action. However if something is seen as a choice, if that choice then leads to action, and if that action results in a positive outcome, it can create a positive feedback loop that makes this behavior part of how the person lives their life, rather than something they must be compelled to do by outside forces. 

That said, I am not sure about the lasting impact of this intervention. A few things to keep thinking about with a project like this one are: Have the community discussions created change in neighborhoods? Now that Musekeweya has been proven effective in these few communities, how many listeners are there nationwide and what have those impacts been? What else can be done, and has been done to alleviate the issues caused by the war? The long term results of this intervention may depend on whether there is work being done to restore equality for all citizens etc. The intervention could be an invaluable compliment to these efforts, but it could also perish if other steps are not taken to address the surrounding issues.

1. Choice (or the illusion of choice) is important in changing human behavior
2. Mass media is most effective when the target population can relate to the characters portrayed
3. Providing models for desired behavior can have a measurable impact on personal beliefs, community norms and consequent behavior.
4. The length of impact of an intervention can be affected by other efforts addressing the same large issue. 
 5. If you are lacking in confidence, look to Kanye

To read the full academic paper on Dr Paluck’s intervention: Paluck, E. L. (2009). Reducing intergroup prejudice and conflict using the media: A field experiment in Rwanda. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(3), 574-587.

In addition, there has been a New York times write up on the radio show:

Thanks for reading! As always, leave any comments below!

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Fireside Chats: How to SPOT a FRAUD with 98.7% accuracy!

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It happened to me, I was defrauded by a con artist but I won’t let it happen to you. Ah Fraudsters, those camouflaging self-serving creatures who seem to find a way to your head, life, companies, institutions, and sometimes your bank account no matter how hard you try to avoid them.  They hide out in bushes like sneaky police officers waiting for their victims and hit you with a massive bill when you least expect it… 
As fate would have it, I ended up working briefly in risk/fraud so I picked up some tips that will come in handy and spare you from monetary and non-monetary damages.  INTENT is an interesting factor that serves as a key differentiator between fraudulent and non-fraudulent activity and statistical models are making these classifications possible. The absence of time or statistical whiz might make running these models impossible but let's not let that cripple us.

I’m no CIA but I got FRAUD 101 classified information ready for you so let’s talk modi operandi (methods of operation).

 1.) Fakeness everywhere you go

There are fake people and there are FAKE people. You should probably be worried about former but the latter really wants to bite you hard. Nothing about them seems straight and you can’t understand how they could possibly live in Dubai, work in Douala, own a Kyoto email ID, and place phone calls from Sydney and San Jose within 2 hours of boarding a plane at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra. I’m probably exaggerating here but you get the point. Their offline and online identities don’t really seem to add up but they are somewhat messing with your head trying to convince you otherwise… RUN! Seriously, search engines are your friends: use them!

2.) Bait-And-Switch

Here comes my favorite, the most used tactic by the con man/woman.  They have mastered the language of legitimacy almost better than the word itself and will flaunt it in your face until they gain your trust. Impressive work ethic and credentials: Check. All-in-one leader/ team player: Check.  Efficient product delivery: Check. Reliable, dependable, personable, trust worthy: Check…Grade: A+! You have to admit it’s really hard to fail someone when the test sheet is loaded with check marks but guess what?  You are about to be punked! The impatient ones punk you with an instant switch flip but others love to have a little bit more fun with it. One missed deadline becomes three, products sell out, multiple emergencies come up, they are no longer reachable or available and the list goes on. You remain in denial about these flags but your benefit of doubt (B.0.D) account is running a deficit. Newsflash: you are cooking up your own (financial) crisis so cut it out with the B.O.D handouts already and pay attention to the stop signs.

3.) Impersonation

This one might be a little harder to spot because some people are just really good impersonators so your iRadars (impersonation radars) need to be alert. This method takes a variety of forms but they are just different flavors of impersonation. To these fraudsters bogus identities are for the birds; why bother going through all that trouble when there are millions of real identities up for grabs? Some of them quickly monetize this operation by going on some kind of shopping spree with the numerous stolen credit cards in their repertoires.  Others aren’t so “lucky” so they spend some time studying a limited number of victims. Bella repeatedly purchases action and adventure movies on Amazon; she has a very active social life and is a regular at sporting events, conferences, and concerts with accounts on Eventbrite, StubHub, and Ticketmaster; she spends an average of $500 on Tiffany & Co. jewelry 5 times a year and just like that Judy (the impersonator) has Bella all figured out! Not to get all cliché on you but some things are truly too good to be true so look out for subtle inconsistencies and build stories that might explain them. If every check matches but you still have that itch: just pick up your phone and make that dreaded call.

I call this your personal FBI (Fakeness, Bait-And-Switch, Impersonation) agent so when in doubt check in with your agent and all will be well with you.


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