Monthly Archives: May 2011

Barcode scanner for zebras

A joint team from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Princeton University has combined technology, biology and conservationism in a cool new open source app called StripeSpotter that identifies zebras by scanning their stripes in a way that’s similar to a supermarket barcode reader.

The system itself uses image recognition algorithms on photographs taken in the field. It’s efficient – written in C++ with plain text csv data storage. They also capture GPS coordinates – presumably with the camera/phone that captures the photographs or separately with a separate GPS device. The basic requirements to start using StripeSpotter are a digital camera and laptop – take a photo, load it on to the laptop and run the StripeSpotter application. Seems like it would be a logical next step to make this a mobile device app so that game wardens can photograph and identify zebras right on the spot and thereafter sync up to a shared server to distribute the tagging work – crowdsource, if you will.

The team is currently compiling a database of Plains and Grevys zebra here in Kenya. The technology has the potential to be used by other striped animals eg tigers, and other animals with distinguishing markings eg leopards and giraffes.


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Too good to be true – Facebook ad for US Masters degree scam

I’ve been seeing a Facebook ad recently that advertises a MS in Computer Science in the US. I idly clicked on it, and as I read, I started thinking that I’ve hit on a gold mine. Well, when something looks too good to be true, it usually is.

The ad led to a webpage that advertised a two year Masters in Computer Science from Maharishi University of Management. Red Flag one – what kind of a name is that for  a US college? But I’m keeping an open mind, after all, a lot of people think that Barack Obama is not American enough.

The big sell for the program  was that of the two years, 7-8 months would be in class, while the rest of the time the student would be working full time for  up to two years. The website claims that most of its students find employment in well known companies and they cite Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other heavyweights. The financial aid package is equally enticing. Basically the school gives you a loan of close to 100% of the course cost, and you repay as you start working full time during the program.

So, a virtually free Masters program with the (almost) guarantee of well paying job in the US? Where do I sign???

Well, that’s when the doubts start to creep in. If this program is really what it claims to be, there should be tens of thousands of people beating down their doors to get in.  They should be extremely exclusive. Yet the requirements of admission are disturbingly few – they don’t even require the GRE. The website has  a sample of the programming test that they administer – and it’s Programming 101, as in, find the second largest number in an array – very strange as this is a Master’s program ostensibly for someone with a Bachelors in CS and a couple years work experience.

They try to slip a seemingly innocuous sentence in there –  “You’ll learn a scientifically validated and well-documented technique for personal development, the Transcendental Meditation® program.” Hmm. Why should this you need to mention this when I’m looking at a Computer Science degree? Well children, it’s because that sentence is the most  gentle and non-alarming way to let you know that, um, you’re about to join a cult. Apparently this Transcendental Meditation is compulsory, no matter your religious beliefs or capacity for choice. One man’s ooga-booga or woo-hoo is another man’s religion, and there are plenty of Chrisitian based institutions that are legitimized and expect students to follow certain general rules, eg Notre Dame, or our own Strathmore. However, one student complains that they have up to four mediation sessions a day. Another claims that refusing to take part in the meditation results in being shunned by the community, or even your grades being lowered.  Googling Transcendental Mediation brings up all you need to know about this cult. TM as they call it, was to the 60/70s what Scientology was to the 90/00s.  Crazy celebrities and all.

Another message board warns that even the loan program is not what it seems. Students hardly have anything left over after the monthly loan repayments, and resort to borrowing from banks at high interest rates to live and continue their programs.

So the program, with it’s aggressive marketing recently targeting Kenya, seems to be a combination of a financial money maker and a breeding ground for new converts. In the worst case, you’ll be in debt in a foreign country and a member of a crackpot cult.  But in the best case scenario, you’ll have a frustrating two years of your life, have a fairly useless degree but perhaps you’ll be able to secure a US job based on your former experience. People have done crazier things to go abroad.

Would you risk the cult for the chance to work in the US?

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Google’s Joe Mucheru at the iHub

Joe Mucheru visited iHub on Friday evening for a Fireside Chat. If you passed him on the street, you would have no idea that the youthful unassuming man is the African regional lead of one of the most prolific companies on earth. Joe has had a lot of success pioneering Google’s presence in Africa for the last four years. However, the friendly setting of the Fireside chat allowed him to tell the fascinating backstory of his life which was perhaps more appropriate for the audience of young technology enthusiasts at the iHub.

Joe started off by telling us that he was born near Limuru and was in boarding school from about the age of nine. He went to Lenana High School, and afterwards studied Economics and Computer Science at City University of London.  He smilingly told us that after a period of working in the UK, he wondered what exactly he was doing there in a land where his ears would freeze for half the year, and  that’s when decided to come back home.

Joe Mucheru doesn’t know the meaning of the word lazy. He set up his own business, Information Retrieval Services, which was brought down by an unfortunate theft of his hardware and equipment. He then went to work developing a website for a company at a time when most people in Kenya had no idea what the internet was. Mucheru styles himself as one of the first webmasters in Kenya. He asked his employer to match what he’d been making in the UK, Ksh. 200,000 per month, but his employer laughed and offered him Ksh20,000, because after all, this “internet web thing” wasn’t that big of a deal. Joe laughed as he recalled that he had just signed an apartment lease for Ksh. 21,000 per month, and realized that he’d have to get smart to survive. He negotiated a deal where he would earn 60-70% of any deal that would come in as a result of his website. His employer agreed, but Joe had the last laugh when several months later, he was pulling in Ksh. 150,000 per month through the new work resulting from his site and his employer pleaded a renegotiation of a flat salary.

A few years down the line, Joe founded Wananchi Online, together with Njeri Rionge, with the goal of bringing internet to the common Kenyan. Joe spoke about his vision to provide home internet access for Ksh. 1000 a month an idea that widely derided, but because of his personality and drive, Wananchi found an Angel investor that committed $500,000 to this dream. The rest is history. Throughout his career and through his company Joe has always been a passionate advocate of democratizing the internet in Kenya and lowering barriers to access, especially through improvement of key infrastructure, resulting in the recent underwater internet fiber optic cable.

Joe spoke about the key principles of his success. Create a solid plan, and then execute blindly. When Google was simultaneously courting him and testing him with over 17 interviews, he got a demonstration of one of Google’s principles – invest a lot in making sure you hire the right people. People that are flexible, and can change direction with the company. Another principle Joe learned from Google was to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. He was afforded the freedom to take a solid idea and run with it.

Joe ended on a note that seemed out of place for a technology talk but tied in to his committed, dive-in approach to life and work. “Guard your health,” he told the iHub audieance. “You can’t work when you’re unwell.”

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