Tuesday, April 8, 2014

chasing homo economicus

My 4-year-old son is obsessed with cool. Let’s be clear: His understanding of the concept is limited. He knows it’s positive. He knows his friends say it about carnivorous dinosaurs. He knows its alternate use—opposite of warm—but he’s lukewarm on that usage.

Instead, he keeps asking me: “Dad, is this Lego cool? Is that cooool? Do you think this one is so cool?” I’m tempted to have a conversation with him about value and the human impulse to judge things as attractive, fashionable, or somehow-or-other impressive, but he’s just not quite ready. Maybe when he’s 5. And when he’s 6 we can delve into the pitfalls of grossly overused adjectives.

His interest in cool has come to mind recently because the tech world has the same obsession—and it isn’t always a good thing. One criticism I have of tech culture that applies to money-related startups is that supposedly disruptive ideas and innovations often fail to do anything more than offer already wealthy people a slightly different way to wirelessly transfer value when buying a coffee.

That’s not to say that innovation has to have lofty goals to matter, that it has to be about the bottom of the pyramid and financial inclusion for it to be anything but navel gazing. That would be ridiculous. But there is often a real disconnect between what consumers want and need, and what companies are developing for them. Read more


This post was originally written for Smart Money, a new outlet based in Milan that's bringing fresh thinking to the continent and into its most cash-addicted enclaves. Like Italy, for instance.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

the simple sale

My latest post for the New Yorker is about banking startup Simple. These guys are doing some truly awesome things, many of which I couldn't detail in this post. The challenge for them going forward will be to keep doing great, innovative, and--ahem--ethical things, now that the company was bought by BBVA.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Need I say more? OK, just a little more. Listen to some masters of mixing and storytelling delve into the puzzle of handedness, and make yours truly sound coherent. Also: Parrots. It's Radiolab!

Monday, February 10, 2014

a letter from cairo's tora prison

Ahmed Maher has been in jail for 72 days. The charge? Violating a ridiculous new law that forbids public protests. For readers interested in how this letter came about, Maher dictated it to a source who visited him at the prison over the weekend. This person transcribed Maher's words on the spot, then had the letter translated into English before sending it on to me. I have (hurriedly) edited it for clarity and fluidity. For a bit more context and analysis, see my piece posted today at Slate-- DW


I would have liked to send reassuring news about my circumstances, but I'm sad to say that, because of my political opinions, I have been in solitary confinement since November 30. I would have liked to tell you that we are closer to achieving the dreams that I and so many others have worked towards for years, and that all the Egyptian people struggled for during the January 25 [2011] Revolution. Many people sacrificed their lives so that they could turn our country into a place where everyone enjoys stability, freedom, and democracy. A nation that respects the dignity of every human being, and a nation where individual rights are protected by laws applied and enforced equally.

After decades of corruption, oppression, and injustice under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and during what followed with the failed presidency of Mohammad Morsi and the current military rulers, it saddens me to say that the goals and principles of the January 25 Revolution are nowhere to be found in today’s government. My situation is a case in point: I was arrested and convicted in record time, and slapped with a 3-year prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds merely for expressing disagreement. Specifically, I spoke out against a newly created law prohibiting public protests. I have also repeated (countless times) the same demands for freedom and human rights that we have been making all along.

Conditions in the prison are terrible. Opportunities to meet with my family and my lawyer are extremely limited. And relatives and journalists are not even permitted to attend court proceedings. At the same time, the military uses state media to discredit me and other activists, accusing us of deeds we had nothing to do with, broadcasting taped personal phone calls that reveal nothing other than our commitment to democracy, and describing us as traitors or spies. We have no chance to refute these bogus claims, of course, let alone pursue proper legal recourse.

Although Egyptian state media paints a picture of humanely run prisons with only terrorists and violent criminals behind bars, the harsh reality is that the numbers here at Tora Prison (and probably elsewhere) increase daily. The other inmates are not just members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but almost anyone from any group who has spoken critically of the current regime, including youth activists, liberal and secular organizers, and even foreign journalists.

It should be clear to all by now that we are dealing with a military dictatorship that rejects any opposing views that do not serve its interests, and that deals with peaceful expression of opinion with tragically familiar tactics: swift detentions, torture, and even murder. While Egypt’s economy continues to flounder, state resources are consumed by the propaganda campaign against people like me, and by the effort to convince citizens that the military’s candidate for president, Abul-Fatah el-Sisi, has their interests in mind, and dupe the world into thinking that he wants to build on the legacy of January 25, not crush it.

It was not long ago that people and governments around the world were inspired by our revolution. They told me it was magnificent, that it was fueled by the noblest goals imaginable. To be honest, I am confused by many of those same governments today, including that of the United States. The US preaches freedom, democracy, and human rights while, simultaneously backing—even assisting—Egypt’s military dictatorship. To say that the US and the rest of the world are turning a blind eye to oppression is an understatement.

Yet I do not believe that the people in the US and elsewhere would accept their governments’ support for tyranny and blatant corruption if they had a clear understanding of what is happening here. If they knew that the military-led state is choking the economy, killing and imprisoning its people, and destroying the dreams of the next generation.

I wanted to tell you that we have gotten further. I refuse to accept the possibility that we achieved nothing, and that those who died in Tahrir Square died in vain, but three years later the situation is bleak. Egyptians today are living under a regime that is more fascist and oppressive even than that of the Mubarak regime.

-- Ahmed Maher

Thursday, December 19, 2013

the political education of a techie dissident

Maher, just before his talk at Portland State U.
On a chilly Friday afternoon in November, just weeks before Ahmed Maher would resort to scribbling notes on toilet paper from his jail cell to communicate with the outside world, I caught up with him on the campus of Portland State University in Oregon. Maher, 33, is the co-founder of Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement, a grassroots group that was instrumental in organizing the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. I had written about Maher in 2008, when A6Y was little more than a motley cadre of rabble-rousers using Facebook and social media to rattle the regime, and again post-revolution, when the world was intoxicated by that thing called the Arab Spring, and Maher and his peers were on their way to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

What a difference three years makes. Egypt so far looks like an epic flail. Members of secular groups like A6Y have always known that you can’t snap your fingers and create a civil society. As Wael Ghonim, the former Google executive who helped galvanize public fury toward Mubarak’s thug-ocracy, put it: “Revolutions are processes, not events.” Unfortunately, that process to date has been characterized by economic dysfunction, broken promises from elected officials and military leadership, flare-ups of deadly violence, and, most recently, a ban on public protests every bit as draconian as Mubarak-era prohibitions. Just this week, Egyptian authorities acquitted some of Mubarak’s closest allies of corruption while filing new terrorism charges against deposed President Mohammed Morsi. A cynic would say the revolution has been hijacked. Worse, even: deleted.

Maher was making the rounds at a few West Coast universities before flying to Washington, D.C. for meetings with human rights groups. In a drab conference room, he spoke to an audience of 30 people about the country’s current volatility and A6Y’s future... 

Click here to continue.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

mobile money and a tiny solar startup you've never heard of

Here's a bit of follow-up on CGAP and Digital Financial Plus. One thing I like about this angle on mobile money is that at its core it's not about mobile money. It' about disrupting conventional--and profoundly inadequate--approaches to getting people the basic services they need (without resorting to socialism).

Quick example: M-Kopa is a startup that installs solar panels and a wireless payment and monitoring device, allowing the household to pay back the investment in small installments over time (sans usurious interest, we assume). Most customers already own the devices after having them for a year, and the company recently welcomed its 40,000th customer. "The short-term benefits are obvious: poor families get cheaper and cleaner energy," says Tilman Ehrbeck, CGAP's CEO. "Additional long-term benefits are up to the imagination. Children can study in the evenings, allowing for a better future, and owners of the devices have already started small side businesses by letting their neighbors charge their cell phones."

In a way, this is just a new way to think mobile money and related technologies; rebranding, even. If you already understand that these tools could have a profound impact when it comes to inclusion in the formal economy, access to financial services, and potentially even economic mobility, you probably won't find the Digital Financial Plus discussion particularly revelatory. But for audiences that may be newer to these concepts, something like DFP may prove to be tremendously helpful. It takes the focus away from the "M-" and puts it on the crucial service--water, electricity, education, health--that the "M-" is making possible, or at least closer to possible.

For a little more, check out the CGAP blog. They've been running interviews this week with experts in this space and people who work in related businesses. The first interview features a woman from a company called Angaza, talking about the pay-as-you go approach to solar energy.