Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Egypt's Interactive Governmental Budget

The Budget of the Egyptian Government is published every year by the Ministry of Finance. The financial year in Egypt starts in the 1st of July and ends in the 30th of June the following year. I've created this graph to show the different categories of the government's expenditure for the financial year 2013/2014. You can also download the detailed budget from there. The data is also available in both CSV and JSON formats.

4 Books Reviews

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable

In this book, Seth Godin shows how being remarkable should be enough for an advertisement to your business. Stumbling upon a Purple Cow in your way will grab your attention without it making any effort advertise itself. The same should be the case for your business. I generally like Godin's blog and books, and this one is not bad, but it was very repetitive. I felt really bored half way through it. May be I am too late to read it now, hence, the boredom. After few chapters in the book, I started to feel that book itself and its message are not becoming a purple cow to me anymore.

I gave the Purple Cow 2 stars on GoodReads.

Design Crazy

This book is about Steve Jobs Inc., better known as Apple Inc., and how the company's obsession with design and the tiniest details in their products was the key to their success. THe book format is a bit strange. The author, Max Chafkin, interviewed a number of people who worked with Jobs, and each chapter is just a sequence of quotes from them, where those quotes together form a coherent narrative. You might not feel comfortable with such a format at the beginning, but later on, I found it nice. The book as a whole is well written, ehm, curated, and the Kindle edition is less than on quid on Amazon. The book is more of a biography than anything else, by the way.

I gave the Design Crazy 3 stars on GoodReads.

City 2.0: The Habitat of the Future and How to Get There

I liked reading this book. It has lots of interesting ideas about how to transform cities using individual initiatives or wisdom of the crowd. Each chapter is in the form of an essay, so it is more of a collection of essays rather than a book, that's why it is less coherent, and ideas are not glued well together. Would love to read a proper book out of this done by urban researchers who can pour in some analytical and theoretical aspects to glue all ideas here into a more interesting book.

The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization

Rather than wasting your time reading my review here, just go and buy this book now. I loved it so much. The title says it all. In this book, Alberto Cairo will take you in a trip showing you how to represent your data into graphical format. You can call it a guide book, since he touches bases with interactive design, graph theories, cognition and mental models. I read it out of interest in the topic, however, I believe others who might not be interested in the information graphics can still read, and enjoy it.

I gave The Functional Art 4 stars on GoodReads.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Don't "World Tread Center" on me

A friend of mine was putting this image in her Facebook profile. I didn't get it at first. Well, I could tell it's a vagina for sure, and it was obvious that it has something to do with women rights, but, what is that grass underneath? Why the yellow background? And what's motto!? After some search, I discovered that it is a play on the Gadsden flag, a flag that was used during the American revolution. In the original flag, it is a rattlesnake snake rather than a vagine, and the snake seems to be provoked, and is striking. Hence the warning; Don't Tread On Me (or I will strike). So, now it is clear.

A dictionary is enough to tell you that the world "tread" has nothing to do with "trade". Treading is some synonym of walking, hence the "treadmill" and W.B. Yeats' verse, "I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”. But a dictionary is not enough to reveal the essential cultural background one needs to understand things people from other countries say.

I can write a sentence in perfect English, that no one can understand but an Egyptian here: "Mr. X has no end". An English speaking person will sure understand the sentence as sequence of words, but he will not understand what I mean by it, since he probably hasn't seen the Egyptian film the sentence was used it. If I say that someone is in Switzerland now, most of you will think of that European country whose flag is red with a white cross in the middle. But only an Egyptian will think of that one being in jail instead.

That's people who claim to be multilingual confuse me. For me, it is hard to speak more than two or three languages, it is even harder to understand the cultures of those languages as well. And not knowing that culture makes it even harder to claim that you speak that language fluently.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

UK Border - between humans - Agency

The day I arrived to England, I knew I'd go back to Egypt after I finish my studies here. This fact didn't stop me from volunteering in charity work every while and helping others whenever I can. I don't have to belong to a country to do good there, because, in the end, I belong to the people living there. We do not share the same citizenship, but we share the fact that we are all humans.

Today, the UK Border Agency reminded me that I am wrong. They are not there only to draw borders on the map, but they also build borders between humans. I wanted my father to visit me for a couple of weeks. Because of a family matter, I needed him to be here with me and he needed to be here too. We applied for his visa, and filled and submitted every single document that is required. But in the end, those in UKBA recklessly refused the visa. The reason they gave was that they are not sure if he will return back to Egypt after he comes. The documents he submitted and his return ticket are supposed to be enough proof that he will, but the fact that we belong to a thirds-world country was enough for them to think he won't. I always believed that "all humans are equal", but the UK Border Agency reminded me today that, for them, "some humans are less equal than others".

Monday, June 3, 2013

Making myself a cup of memories

Making myself a cup of tea reminds me how 8 months ago I used to put the the electric kettle on its base with its handle on the right side, while my mother used to put it with the handle on the other side, because she was left handed. I didn't know how to cook, and I seldom made my bed unless she asked me to, and my only way to say that I can be useful was to offer making her some tea every while. I then developed a bad habit. I used to put the kettle on and simply forget it, and usually I found her coming into my room later on, after making me the cup of tea I promised to make.

Later on, after I travelled to England to do my postgraduate degree, I started to learn how to cook different dishes. Although, they are some simple dishes, but I was really happy that I now can promise to make her one of them after I return back home. Spaghetti is the safest option, but come on, that one is very easy. May be, I should try rice with carrots and peas, but that's too cliché. How about a pie? I cannot assure making an edible pie every time, but if I failed, I can make those muffins I learnt to make too as a last-minute compromise.

The very same thoughts come to me every time I make myself I cup of tea. In fact, I can hardly find any detail in my day to day life where she is not present there. I wish we can bring people back to life the same way the tinniest details of our days bring our memories back to life. And I know the day those details will fail to remind me of her is that day I will be dead already.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Notes on re:publica 2013

This was my second time to attend re:publica. It is a yearly social conference that takes place in Berlin. It started as a conference for bloggers, but now it include lots of other themes from startups to activism to campaigning and marketing. In fact, I attended less sessions this year than the previous one, and I am going to write a brief about them later on in the post, but let me first start with some random notes I grabbed from the conference.

I love the style of those posters of re:publica
  • The smaller the room, the better the session. Well, not only me, but many others have noticed the same thing. The less known speakers giving a workshop-like sessions are more interesting than the well known ones or panels arranged in bigger auditoriums.
  • More than speeches, I enjoy the new ideas I stumble upon while attending such conferences. So here are some of those ideas.
    • Re:public is not held in a fancy conference centre per se. What surprises me last time is that the venue used to be deserted factory, it was prepared and converted into a conferences venue later on. It is cool, cozy and suitable for the spirit of a bloggers conference.
    • In the main hall, where key note and major speeches take place, there is a screen behind the presenter, and his speech is being transcribed on that screen in real time. It is a tough task done manually, but it is very useful for those with hearing impairment, or even journalists or others who take notes of what is being said.
    • This is a new idea, but it is new to me at least. Fabbeo allows those who do not have 3D printers to send them an STL file for an object they want to print. In fact, they do not have 3D printers themselves, but they just serve as a marketplace matching customers with service providers with 3D printers.
    • In conferences like this, people are busy tweeting and taking photos with their phones. So, their mobile batteries are not expected to last for the whole day, right? As a way of promoting their company, Simyo, a German mobile operator, allows people to borrow portable chargers for their mobiles.
    • Last year one company was doing one fine marketing idea. They had a vending-machine-like stand that is connected to the internet. When you go there and publicly check into the machine via Foursquare, it gives you a soda can or something. They were generating a lot of buzz on Foursquare about their company this way, as well as attracting people to their stand.

Eric Hersman
The conference's keynotes was given by Eric Hersman. For those who do not know him, he is an American born and raised in South Sudan. How now lives in Kenya. And you can call him an African entrepreneur. He started iHub, a startup incubator in Kenya, he made Ushahidi with others and is widely respected technologist, blogger and commentator who specialises in the impact and application of technology throughout Africa. I believe the choice for the keynote came because, although he is a bloggers, but it also reflects re:publica's intention to present itself as a conference for entrepreneurs and business startups too. His choice also reflects the need to shed the light on a usually ignored continent, especially when it comes to technology and development.

Eric is an okey speaker. The speech was not impressive or strong as Eben Moglen's keynote last year for example. Eric was focusing on the startup scene in Africa, giving examples from different countries. Showing the incubators across the continent, the entrepreneurs and their challenging spirit was a good thing, but the choices for some of their products was patronising in a way. He pointed one of the main problems that face local investors in the Middle East and Africa, where there are lower hanging fruits such as real-estate business and food chain, which attracts investors diverting them from funding technology startups sometimes. For sure, market economics shall fix that someday, but this still is one of the issues. He then stressed on the need for entrepreneurs to find way to collaborate with each other and build communities and ecosystem. He referred to huts building in Africa as an example where a whole village collaborate to build it. It's up to each one to choose whether he want to be a "villager" or an "individual". Being an individual is okey, but they shouldn't expect people to help or collaborate with them. Then came the main point of his speech, at least according to me. He said that Africa does have its own problems, and entrepreneurs have to solve those problems of their local communities as no body else is going to offer to fix them. In other words, a product made for Berlin or London is not usually suitable for Nairobi or Delhi. He gave an example with a 3G model they are producing in iHub. In a way, it is not a new idea, it is just 3G modem produced everywhere. But giving it a second thought, you can see that electricity is not stable in Africa. Hence, their 3G modem (BRCK), is rugged, portable and can work on batteries rather than electricity. He finally ended his talk with the following summary notes: "There is A LOT going on (in Africa)", "Local problems need local solutions" and "Support and growth are lacking".

Ben Scott
Another session I attended was given my Ben Scott. Ben used to work as a Policy Advisor for Innovation at the US Department of State. He worked at the intersection of technology and foreign policy, or to use his own words, he worked with Hilary Clinton on how to change the US policy in the internet age. Prior to that he worked for 6 years in Free Press. He described Free Press as a non-profit organisation that tries to organise people online and help them engage with wider audience on the internet to discuss internet policies and see how to put forward "good" internet policies. I put good in between quotes here because I have no idea how he defines good policies. Ben started talking about internet campaigns and how all successful campaigns share the same aspects. He added that the internet doesn't really care what you are for and what you are against. Using internet for campaigns is basically the same for all causes. He then referred to Obama's presidential campaign in 2008, and how for the first time they harnessed the internet with such scale. "What Obama realised in his 2008 campaign was that the power dynamics is changing because of the internet", he added. Although, most of what he is saying is well known, I enjoyed some of his examples. To elaborate the contrast between social campaigns now and twenty years earlier, he wondered what are the odds that someone with a camera is taking photos when something like the Boston Marathon bombing takes place in 1985, compared to it in 2013? He then warned that it is - however - not about technology any more, it is more about social change. A successful campaign should make use of technology, but it should also know how to use it to get engaged with the audience. To elaborate more, he added that two companies might use the internet and social media to deliver their message, but a successful social media strategy should not be how you shrink your press release into 140 characters, it is how you engage with people. Back to Obama campaign, he added that they realised than that people want to be heard. The campaign success came from the fact that they gave people a platform to be heard. A campaigners objective should focus on engagement with audience even before listening or just speaking to them. Additionally, social media is not only about delivering a message now, it is also used for collaboration or even funding causes, for example: kickstarter. Both SOPA and PIPA are example how laws can be defeated by the power of internet collaboration. When one of the audience asked whether he is very optimistic about the internet and its super powers, given that some countries like Iran already control and censor the internet. He replied: "30 years ago, if you wanted to start a revolution, you had to control the broadcast station; and to stop it, you had to install armed forced around the station. Now it is that you go online to start a revolution, and you censor and police the internet to stop it". Then he added regarding the case of Iran, "the thing to do in such case is to find alternatives for the internet, or any other parallel ways for communication".

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Humanity on display in Neues Museum

The bust of Nefertiti
Today I was in Neues Museum in Berlin. They have got the iconic head of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti. Let alone how they value the statue. Let alone how they put it in a separate hall by its own. Let alone all the valuable historic items in the museum. Today, I've seen something more valuable than all the historic monuments in there. Something that touched my heart. In a corner next to the statue of Nefertiti, there is another bronze copy of the statue with braille text underneath it. It is there for those blind ones who cannot see the original statue to go and touch it and see it with their fingers.

For me that statue is more valuable than all the original items in the museum. It just symbolises humanity.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

On Glorifying Violence

Contrary to almost all of my fellow Egyptian youths nowadays, I hate this growing tone of glorifying violence. Well, this post might be two years late, it might not be the perfect time for it, since the regime and its security forces are currently killing people. But still, I prefer to say it out loud right now. As it is usually better late than never. I am not just agains the idea of glorifying and legitimising violence and considering it a revolutionary act, because of my natural hatred to violence. I am agains it for pragmatic reasons as well. But let me first explain what I mean by "glorifying and legitimising violence".

Illustration by Mohamed Nabil Labib

About two years ago, when the Egyptian people revolted agains Mubarak regime, there existed two narratives for the revolution. One pictured it as a peaceful revolution taking places in Tahrir square, where people carried banners and chanted agains the regime. The other side of the story are those rarely-filmed acts of burning police stations, official buildings and looting department stores. The argument now, is not whether one of them existed rather the other. Because both sides of the story are true. The more valid question now is to ask ourselves, whether we should blindly legitimise the second act and value it as "the only" facet of a multi-facade revolution or not.

One reason for glorifying violence was because Mubarak, SCAF and the Ikhwani government now, always find it plausible to accuse their opponents of being thugs and violent mobs who want to sabotage the country and its stability. This was always their favourite strategy to give legitimacy to the state's brutality. And according to our friend Isaac Newton, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". Hence, the leftists on the other hand, decided to nullify the meaning of terms such as thugs and violence by mocking them sometimes, and glorifying them some other times. You can see people on twitter and facebook giving themselves names like "a thug" and "baltajy". Other than that, there also exists the radical ones who believe that peaceful protests will lead people nowhere.

Watching the security forces killing dozens of civilians in Port Said in less than 48 hours and taking an old man's clothes off in the streets about a month ago and brutally hitting him with heavy sticks, makes part of me eager to legitimise violence as a sort of response to such acts by the state. However, as I said earlier, I still have my pragmatic reasons to refuse it. On the one hand, such violence gives excuses for the regime to kill, beat and arrest more people, and convince the others that it has the right to do so. And it is obvious that in such violent game, the regime can easily outnumber its opponents with its weapons, trained forces and media. On the other hand, if you legitimise violence now, you cannot denounce it later when others such as Salafies, who have always been true believers of violent opposition, use it later on. Not only the Salaies, you've got the Ultras (football fans who got involved into politics since the revolution) as well, they have been praised by revolutionaries throughout the past two years, and now they curse them because they are uncontrollably violent. The problem is that we all miss the point, rather than condemning the Ultrals, we should condemn that culture of glorifying violence we have been witnessing since the early days of the revolution. It's that culture that gave birth sometimes and legitimacy some other times to all those violent groups. The third problem here, is that violence is like a snow ball, it can start small and limited to – arguably – legitimate reasons, but it can quickly get out of control.

Do you think the current chaotic and violent scene is going to make people less confident in the Ikhwani government and they are going to loose any upcoming elections? Damn wrong! The majority are going to vote for the Ikhwan, like they did earlier, and like they used to do during Mubarak's regime. The people just vote for stability, for the the authority and for those who play politics while others never learn and continue to play the wrong game in the wrong arena.

Originally posted in openDemocracy

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Rachel Corrie, the girl who taught me a life lesson

On the 16th of March, 2003, a girl passed away under an armoured bulldozer in Rafah. Back then, she was of my same age, yet her mental age was way older than mine.

I was raised in a school where we've been taught that Jews are synonymes to Satan. We were never taught that there is any difference between people's religion and an army that kills civilians in the name of the same religion. Rachel Corrie left her home, travelled thousands of miles and stood in the face of a bulldozer to defend some other people's houses and right to live. Rachel Corrie was Jewish, and stood in the face of a government that carries her very same religion, to defend people who are mostly Muslims. And she died. In the very same school, I was taught to call those who die for a cause Martyr, provided that they are Muslims. Members of other religions are not to be called martyrs. That's what I used to believe in back then. But screw all what we've been taught back then. She is a martyr. A more honorable martyr than millions of those we were taught to call martyrs. She is a martyr, because it's not about people's religion, it's about how human they are.

She died for a cause, but also her death taught me a life lesson. It changed the way I see what we used to call others altogether. Changed it forever.

May she rest in peace now.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Deduction vs Induction

To deduce is to draw a specific conclusion from a general principle. To induce is to derive a general principle from specific observations.

Read more here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Believe in destiny, yet act like Maggie

Photo taken by Yusuke Kawasaki under Creative Commons license

I still remember that scene of "City of Angels", when Maggie (Meg Ryan), who was a doctor, and she tried to save one of her patients, yet he died in the end.

Maggie: I couldn't fix him.
I did everything right...
...and I couldn't fix him.
That's not supposed to happen.
And l....

Seth: You cried.

I may love this move just because of this scene. It changed the way I see the world a bit back then when I watched it 15 years ago or something. We love the word "Destiny", yet our relation with it is complicated, since we blame everything on it. We never fail, government officials never do anything wrong, it's all destiny. Maggie on the other hand did not believe in Destiny, that's why she believed she has to save her patient, and if he dies, then it is her mistake, her's only. But the patient died in the end, yet she did everything right.

Between the two extremes, I believe we may believe in destiny, yet act like Maggie, act as if it doesn't exist.

What reminded me of this today, is yet another train accident that took place in Egypt, exactly two months ago we had another accident where dozens of school-children died. And as you might have expected, the officials and their look-alike citizens blame it on everything from destiny to the train driver, to the former president Mubarak, to - may be - the British occupation a century ago; you name it.