Tag Archives: life

A whirlwind trip to Beirut

Through a series of unlikely events, I found myself with the opportunity to visit Beirut for a week in early March of 2018. It was a great experience, and challenged many of the stereotypes I had developed about the realities of both the middle east and proximity to conflict zones.

The most impressive aspect of Lebanon to me was the handling and presence of the refugee situation in the area. Lebanon has had a significant southern area of refugee camps for those moving away from conflict in Palestine. More recently, a sizable refugee population has entered the country leaving the Syrian conflict. Today, there are more refugees in Lebanon than citizens, which is a source of conflict and tension in many parts of the country.

Camps, at least the impressive images of dense clusters of refugees we see in western news, do not reflect the reality I found in Lebanon. At least from the portion of the eastern countryside I saw, refugees are situated in small clusters of a few families at edges of existing towns and cities. While shelter construction is rushed, as families arrive and quickly need places to stay, there’s a significant local variability in how much local time and resources are available to construct more livable dwellings. On the ground, the competence and overloaded-ness of the local NGOs and community members is probably the biggest factor in outcome. The structures I saw had power, TVs, and charging android phones.

I was caught off guard in a good way by the urban population center of Beirut. First, Beirut continues to exist as a melting pot of a bunch of different ethnicities and cultures. Second, there was both a general tolerance and liberalism that exceeded what I’ve seen in UAE or Pakistan. Third, that liberalism translated into a much less pervasive security apparatus than I was expecting given the location and strife in the region. I needed to provide a passport as Identification for hotels, but did not need it for travel in the country, and did not need to show ID for access to school campuses of businesses. Part of that is white privilege, but in general there was not infrastructure to support any meaningful restrictions of movement or exclusion of groups from public areas.

I was likewise surprised by the seeming ease with which people were able to travel between Lebanon and Syria. For the demo day of a syrian entrepreneurship bootcamp, a number of spectators traveled to Beirut for the day from Damascus. The general sentiment I heard from several Lebanese was that the country is generally safe, but that as you get towards the edges, it’s preferable to travel with someone from the area who knows people. It’s often non-obvious, but traveling with someone who already has relationships built with those in the region seems to be the accepted way of keeping situations diffused.

In terms of connectivity, much of the stress of the country is that the conflict surrounding it has meant that there are not solid landline connections to the rest of the world. This means most Internet traffic is routed through an undersea cable to Cyprus, which limits the overall capacity for the country. In turn, this leads to relatively expensive fixed-line Internet pricing, with many people opting for mobile Internet. Mobile connections can often be cheaper and faster than the DSL providers. In rural areas, it was noted that there are some cases of communities sharing mobile connections, through hotspots or tethering to a connected phone.

One of the signs I found heartening was that at the makerspace in Beirut, there were members with Tor project and Internet activism stickers on their laptops. The ability openly express support for those causes is a great sign that civil society is able to function without significant pressure on that front.


I’m very excited to have two talks at CCC at the end of the month. The bulk of accepted talks can be seen and voted on at the CCC “halfnarp”.

The first talk is on the Internet in Cuba. It expands upon the recent talk I presented at IMC last month, to provide additional color on what Internet access is really like in Cuba, and what the community there is doing to create LANs and other alternatives to the official but expensive ETECSA service.

The second talk looks again at technology in Pyongyang. Since 2014, there have been a number of talks about the totally closed off tech ecosystem there, but as it ramps up we continue to only get a few glimpses into what’s going on, and it’s getting only harder as the broader tensions ramp up. My goal is to propose a path for getting more rather than less transparency into the picture, because it is a really fascinating place.

The talks should both be recorded, and might even be streamed. If you’re one of the (I hear it could be up 16,000) participants, I hope to see you in Leipzig!

China in 2017

I had the chance to visit China last week and tag along with the tail-end of a longer trip organized around various Makerspaces around the region. This is the first time in several years that I’ve spent a prolonged amount of time in the dense population areas of Beijing and Shanghai, and it was fascinating to watch the evolution that continues in this majority of Chinese life.

The most noticeable change from my perspective is that Beijing and Shanghai are effectively almost cashless. The use of Alipay and wechat pay are ubiquitous, to the point that you feel that you are creating an imposition to shop keepers by paying with cash. While funding your account on either of these services requires a chinese bank account (which itself requires a mainland cellphone number), the process can be short-circuited by making an unofficial exchange with someone willing to send you a personal transfer within the systems. It remains easy enough to find people at hostels, (as well as localbitcoins, I hear) who are willing to trade.

The systems themselves are fascinating to use. Payment to a merchant will automatically cause you to follow the merchants account, typically leading to messages about member cards and discounts. These messages seemed to only be pushed directly in response to a purchase, and weren’t overly intrusive. It seems to be the realization of the business-to-consumer engagement systems facebook and google have been struggling and so far failing to build in the US. Smaller vendors often operate directly as individuals – you type in how much money the bill is, and send it as a direct transfer to an account specified by the waiter or merchant.

This payment structure has resulted in a secondary industry of android-based devices dedicated to sales and scanning QR codes for these systems, as well as receipt printers that turn app orders into printed requests for food or similar.

Apart from the payment evolution, it is really interesting to watch China modernize. Life there now is much more comfortable from a western perspective than it has been in the past, with both a larger presence of foreigners visible and more english available to help navigate. Some distinctive characteristics remain, including a self-interested approach to queuing and different expectations of personal space. Prices in Shanghai have reached parity with those in the west, although cheaper options remain if you look for them.

In terms of Internet connectivity, I was surprised to find that connectivity remained quite similar to what I had experienced in the past. An SSH tunnel to a foreign server was sufficient to maintain email access while I was there, and disruptions I experienced seemed to be much more a function of over-loaded local networks than of more restrictions for international traffic. I talked with a couple different people who mentioned that Astrill continues to not be blocked, and seemed surprised that something so well known continues to operate without disruption.

PUST in the news

The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) has shown up in a recent New York Times article, and I’m mentioned at the end.

A couple notes on the article:

  • While the school may have 250 acres if the affiliated cooperative farms are included, the actual campus is much smaller, with ~10 buildings built around two sports fields.
  • The supposition of leverage is, I feel, more nuanced than expressed in the article. Detentions of Americans have and continue to occur across the different engagements. While PUST got unlucky this time, it provides no more benefit to the regime in that regard than the tourism or other ongoing aid projects, which have also experienced similar actions in the past.
  • PUST is not even close to the largest foreign community in the country, as stated, that honor goes to the Chinese

Projects like PUST are an opportunity to put a human face on Americans in the minds of the next generation of educators and empowered thinkers in Pyongyang. It’s hard to overstate the value of that engagement.

3rd International conference of PUST


I returned to PUST this fall just in time for ICOPUST3, a bi-annual conference hosted by the university and one of the few instances of international academic engagement performed by the university.

A bit of background: I spoke on my research at ICOPUST2, the previous instance of this conference held two years ago, and my first time visiting the university. The conference by design is a multi-track affair covering the full breadth of academics (from computer science to agriculture) taught at the university.

This year, I acted as the session chair for the computer science track of the conference, which proved to be quite rewarding. I’m encouraged by the continued academic engagement present at the conference and occurring at the university as a whole.