Monday, April 21, 2014

filthy lucre in the news (again)

In honor of NYU’s Dirty Money Project, I’m posting a few particularly germ-laden paragraphs from The End of Money:

In the science-fiction novel The White Plague by Dune author Frank Herbert, a molecular biologist decides to exact revenge for his family’s murder by poisoning paper money and distributing it in countries where the bad guys in the story live. The contamination spreads out of control and becomes a global plague. At one point, the U.S. president declares: “We’ve decontaminated and replaced the money to the point where we can start lifting the quarantine on the banks.” Unfortunately, the plan falters.

Banknotes and coins harbor all kinds of bugs.2 Traces of the bacteria staphylococcus have been detected on 94 percent of all U.S. dollar bills. In 2003, hysteria in China that banknotes could spread the SARS virus proved to be unfounded, but the Bank of China still decided that any bills it received would be held for twenty-four hours—the estimated lifespan of the virus—before being released back into the ocean of circulation. And Swiss researchers have found that moderate concentrations of flu virus could survive on banknotes for up to three days. When they tested the same bugs “in the presence of respiratory mucus,” which sounds like a really fun experiment, they determined that the virus lived for up to seventeen days. “The unexpected stability of influenza virus in this nonbiological environment,” wrote the scientists, “suggests that unusual environmental contamination should be considered in the setting of pandemic preparedness.” Could circulating banknotes help spread a
future plague?

When I forwarded that study to a friend at the Centers for Disease Control, she was unimpressed. “Are the researchers sucking on banknotes or inserting them in their noses?” she asked. Without a perfect storm of transmission conditions—someone sneezes on a banknote, doesn’t allow it to dry, stores it someplace dark and humid, doesn’t rub it on other material like a leather wallet or pants pocket—maybe, and only maybe, enough viral particles could survive to infect the next person handling those bills. Unless people start using greenbacks as handkerchiefs, she told me, whatever germs do reside on cash or coins should die a quick death.*5 That was reassuring, yet a friend who recently returned from Africa was kind enough to inform me that people in some of the more dangerous parts of the continent store cash in their underwear. As smart as my contact at the CDC might be, I suspect that when assuring me of cash’s harmlessness, not even she was thinking of banknotes stored in skivvies.

final countdown

Firsthand launches April 29. Get ready.

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