Monday, March 16, 2015

The Virginia Calculator: Thomas Fuller, African ”Slave” And Mathematical Genius

Thomas Fuller, familiarly known as the Virginia Calculator, was a native of Africa. At the age of fourteen he was stolen, and sold into slavery in Virginia, where he found himself the property of a planter residing about four miles from Alexandria. He did not understand the art of reading or writing, but by a marvellous faculty was able to perform the most difficult calculations.

Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, Penn., in a letter addressed to a gentleman residing in Manchester, Eng., says that hearing of the phenomenal mathematical powers of “Negro Tom,” he, in company with other gentlemen passing through Virginia, sent for him. One of the gentlemen asked him how many seconds a man of seventy years, some odd months, weeks, and days, had lived, he gave the exact number in a minute and a half. The gentleman took a pen, and after some figuring told Tom he must be mistaken, as the number was too great. “‘Top, massa!” exclaimed Tom, “you hab left out de leap-years!” And sure enough, on including the leap-years in the calculation, the number given by Tom was correct.

“He was visited by William Hartshorn and Samuel Coates,” says Mr. Needles, “of this city (Philadelphia), and gave correct answers to all their questions such as, How many seconds there are in a year and a half? In two minutes he answered 47,304,000. How many seconds in seventy years, seventeen days, twelve hours? In one minute and a half, 2,110,500,800.”

That he was a prodigy, no one will question. He was the wonder of the age. The following appeared in several newspapers at the time of his death.

Present day thinking is that Fuller learned to calculate in Africa before he was brought to the United States as a slave. Supporting evidence for this comes from a passage written by Thomas Clarkson in 1788 describing the purchase of African slaves:

It is astonishing with what facility the African brokers reckon up the exchange of European goods for slaves. One of these brokers has ten slaves to sell , and for each of these he demands ten different articles. He reduces them immediately by the head to bars, coppers, ounces… and immediately strikes the balance. The European, on the other hand, takes his pen, and with great deliberation, and with all the advantage of arithmetic and letters, begin to estimate also. He is so unfortunate, as to make a mistake: but he no sooner errs, than he is detected by this man of inferior capacity, whom he can neither deceive in the name or quality of his goods, nor in the balance of his account.

Despite Fuller’s calculating abilities he was never taught to read or write and again this is evidence that he did not learn to calculate while in the United States. When someone who had witnessed his calculating abilities remarked that it was a pity he had not been educated, Fuller replied: ‘It is best I got no learning; for many learned men be great fools.’


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Sunday, March 1, 2015

James Jones Tells His Story

I grew up homeless for the first 15 years of my life. I was in and out of homeless shelters, in and out of motels. My mother and father were heavy drug users. Actually, a lot of my family members were heavy drug users. It was a rough childhood. Nobody knew how hard my situation was but me.
I moved in with my grandmother when I was going into high school. By moving in with her, I was able to go to the same high school for all four years, able to have the same friends, have the same home to live in, have some stability for the first time in my whole life.

My main inspiration and my main hunger to be successful was my mom. When I was real young, I want to say maybe four or five years old, I told my mom that I was going to make it to the NFL and buy her a home. I had a vision and a belief that no matter what happened, no matter what anybody said, I was going to make it to the NFL. And that was my main drive. I’m not saying I was the perfect kid and I didn’t get in trouble, but there were a lot times when my friends were going to do drugs or going to sell this or that, and my mom’s face would flash in my head. That would remind me to go the other way or go to the gym. I was extremely motivated to change the whole situation.

Like I say all the time, I’ve played with a lot of guys who may have had more talent than me, but weren’t willing to sacrifice the things that I sacrificed to make it. I had a hunger that I was not going to be denied. And any situation that presented itself that was going to take me off of that course, well, then I went the other way. I told my buddies I’m not drinking, I’m not smoking, I’m not going with you all to do this or that. I stood by that and was truly determined to change my situation. And I did go and buy my mom that home after my rookie year in the league.

I truly think that growing up homeless helps you appreciate the little things a lot more, helps you be grateful for so many things because you grew up wanting what everyone else had. Even now, when I walk into the stadium in the mornings and see that we have an all-you-can-eat breakfast every day, I still can’t believe it. And sometimes I hear guys complaining that they serve the same thing all the time, and in my head, I’m like, ‘Man, what in the world?! This is a blessing. I don’t care if I have to eat a waffle everyday, at least I have something to eat.’

Just like with my kids now. They have their own room, their own bed. They are able to do swim class, play sports and do the things they want to do, everything I didn’t have the opportunity to do when I was growing up. I just appreciate those things a lot more because I’m able to see what my kids have. It’s humbling, but I’m very grateful for all the little things. I think that’s one of the main things I took from being homeless; just appreciate the little things and be humble because at any time it all could be taken away from you.

Today, I do so much in the homeless community because I was once one of them. I understand all of the things that they are struggling with, all of the things that they are going through. When I was living in a homeless shelter, there were so many days that I woke up and wanted to quit or woke up and wanted to do something bad. But, when you have a positive influence in your life or can see someone who has been there – been homeless – doing something positive with their life now…I think it helps people.

To me, it’s more important to touch somebody’s life than to catch touchdowns on the football field. When I first got drafted, when I first made it to the National Football League, I told my wife that I wanted to start a foundation to give back because you can throw for as many yards as you want to throw for, catch as many touchdowns as you want to catch, but at the end of the day, I felt that God put me in this position to help and change other people’s lives. And I felt like if I wasn’t doing that, I wasn’t truly using all of the ability God gave me. I felt like he blessed me to make it to the NFL to do such things as help the homeless shelters because that’s the way I grew up. It means a lot more to me to change somebody’s life, to change a little kid’s life, than to go on the football field and win games or catch 1,000 touchdowns. It means more when I see little kids light up and when I’m able to change their lives and inspire them with my story.

Since I’ve been in the NFL, I’ve been giving back to homeless shelters. But the last couple years I really started telling my story and doing more. My Foundation, Love Jones 4 Kids, throws a fundraiser for the local homeless shelter every year called Toast to Success, where we have a live auction and a wine tasting. When I played for the Packers, the event benefitted a couple of the homeless shelters there. And now that I’m out here, back near where I grew up, we are working with the homeless shelters in this area. It’s not the same shelter I was once in (they actually built a new one that’s way nicer than the one I stayed in), but it’s around the same area. We’re also setting up another event now to donate to a homeless shelter in Oakland. My wife (who runs the Foundation) is getting that set up; to raise some money and donate a meal to them. I have another initiative called 89 Wishes, where we grant 89 wishes to kids who write in to our Foundation. You know, 89 is a lucky number because that’s my football number.

Like I told my wife when we first started the Foundation, I never wanted to have one of these organizations where we just dish out money, but don’t have any relationships with the people. So I go to the shelters as much as I can to talk to the people. My family and I donate a meal to the families there whenever we get a chance. I make sure that my family knows that we are truly blessed. My mother and father help too. We were once in this position, so the least we can do is give back and try to change some people’s lives.

When I serve a meal at a shelter, I sit them all down and talk to them, let them know I’ve sat in the same seats they are sitting in. I tell them not to make any excuses and don’t give up because it can’t get worse than this. Keep striving to do better. Any time that I can get out there and share my story, feed the homeless, talk to them, help give them a positive word and some inspiration that ‘yeah, it’s hard right now, but keep on fighting, it’s going to get better’…that’s what I try to do.

And I really like to have a relationship with the kids. That’s why everything I do through the Foundation is free. When I was in Green Bay, I threw football camps and I always host one in California. Everything is free. And I do it that way because when I was little, my mom didn’t have the money to pay for me to participate in any camps or anything like that. I try to reach out to the kids that way.

Sometimes people ask what type of mark I want to leave on the Bay Area homeless community. To be honest with you, if you were to walk into a homeless shelter and ask the people there, ‘What does James mean to you?’, I would want them to say that he loves us, he cares about us. It’s beyond football or money or any of that. It’s about changing their lives. I just want them to know I care.
Long story short, that is my life story.

Going through all of this is what I truly believe made me the man I am today, and I always feel like God put me in that situation because he felt like I could handle it. It’s a touchy subject in my heart, which is why I try to go out there and inspire people who are homeless today to keep fighting and do great things.


Jones also runs a foundation with his wife. It’s called “Love Jones 4 kids”

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rise of a gangsta nerd: Fellows Friday with Hakeem Oluseyi

Astrophysicist, educator, and humanitarian Hakeem Oluseyi trounced race and class to become an important contributor to computer technology and space research. Back on Earth, he’s doing all he can to give young and underfunded scientists a chance to reach for the stars.
Yours is an extraordinary story. You grew up impoverished — moving frequently from city to city across the South — and then became a successful astrophysicist and science educator and advocate. Are you tired of telling the story of your background?

Well, it is an important part of what I’m doing now. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Right now I have a research group of over 20 students and very few of them are from similar a background to myself — but I have a special place in my heart for people like me.

Childhood was just rough, difficult. I felt like I was running the gauntlet. I had a mother who worked all the time, always gone. And I just felt like there was always a predator at my heels. She’d leave two dollars for me to go buy myself dinner, and I’d walk to the corner store and buy a can of pork and beans.

My response to this was: I wanted to be bad. I wanted to outgangster the next gangster. KRS-One, the rapper, Boogie Down Productions? He has a song I love that goes, “Where I’m from, if you’re soft you’re lost, cuz to stay on course means to roll with force.” And that’s how I was. You’ve got to intimidate this next dude before he intimidates you. Otherwise you’re going to be the victim. So by the time I was a teenager I was carrying a gun, I was involved in all these crazy things. I carried protection because I lived in a violent world. But the other side of this story is that I was also really interested in physics — it’s what I did for fun. In my own communities, I was seen as some kind of weirdo nerd kind of guy. A cool nerd. A gangsta nerd.

As I became a young man, my mother saw the handwriting on the wall, and one of the things she did was she moved me out of the inner city. Because we’d lived in New Orleans, Houston, inner city areas. She finally moved me to rural Mississippi where my dad was from.

The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, La Serena, Chile. Photo: Patrick Champney
And there, at Tougaloo College, you had a breakthrough.

Yes.These three grad students from MIT and Harvard came to Tougaloo, where I was one of two physics students in 1986. They were all black physics students from the Cambridge area – and each of them thought they were the only one! They came to realize that kids from certain communities just have no idea that physics as a career exists. They decided they’d start the National Council of Black Physics Students, to help the most down-and-out kids in the country. So where did they go? Mississippi. They showed up on our campus.

Because of them, I ended up meeting recruiters from Stanford University that ended up accepting me to Stanford for grad school. In all of Stanford’s history, at that time, there were only two black professors in all of the six schools of natural sciences and mathematics. One was my PhD advisor, Art Walker, who was also the PhD advisor of Sally Ride. Just being in his presence showed me a different model of how I could be.

But when I first got there, I was still doing the same things. Right next door was East Palo Alto, which in that particular year was the murder capital of the country for per capita murders. I was involved in drugs and these sorts of things. And I was hanging out in the hood. It was all bad. I had this one particularly horrific night. I told Art what I had been up to, and Art looks at me and he goes, “Well, you’re not going to do these things anymore, are you?”

Why would you do that? You were at Stanford.

When I got to Stanford I quickly realized that class was more important than race in this particular environment. And I pretty much felt rejected and dejected. I did face some initial hostility. Not only that, I was faced with a type of failure that I had never seen before academically. My first reaction was: “Let me go home. Let me go to where it’s familiar to me.” The first thing you’re going to do is run to the ghetto. If you’re from the hood and you end up in a Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, you don’t want to be around those people.

Those are the “bad” guys, where you’re from. And they treat you like you’re the bad guy in their world. I remember, after my first week — I was married at the time — I came home and said to my wife: “You know, I really cannot see myself being around these people every day, but I can see myself being out on the corner every day. That’s a big problem.” How can I become what it is I want to become, when on the one hand the image that I have of myself is inappropriate, and on the other hand, the way that society is made up is something that scares me? Can I fit in? And it’s tough. I kind of struggle with it even to this day, but not to that extent, of course. And it never happens among international groups of people.

But in the end, Art’s support changed it for me. It was like two different lives. I ended up changing my name from James Edward Plummer to reflect how my life had changed so drastically. I wanted my middle name to reflect how I am. So my middle name is Muata and it means “He seeks the truth.” I wanted my first name to reflect what I want to become. My first name Hakeem means “wisdom.” And my last name is from the West African Yoruba people, and it means “God has done this.”

Speaking at Specialist South Africa tour.
When did you finally realize you do, in fact, fit into your role in life?

I was in graduate school — the year was 1995 or 1996 — and a colleague and I had to go to NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center, to calibrate the data that we had taken in a rocket flight. I’m such a scientist groupie nerd. When you get into a field and you’re becoming an expert, you’ve got to be current and you’ve got to read all the papers. You quickly begin to recognize who the big players are. My attitude in those days was: “OK, you’re a big player, Ron Moore, I’m going to get every paper Ron Moore ever wrote and I’m going to read them.” And that’s what I went about doing. So I got to NASA and whose names are on all the doors? All these people that I idolized. And I’m just like, “Wow, wow, wow!”

And so we’re hanging out in the hallway, and these three scientists walk up. And the local graduate student introduces us. We all start talking physics. And it just amazed me that, here I was, having a conversation at an equal level with these guys about physics, about the stuff we were doing. And I remember the other graduate students really couldn’t even participate because they hadn’t been putting in the work that I had. They’d always treated me like I was this intellectual welfare case, really being mean to me about it.

After the scientists left, they looked at me and said, “You’ve been reading, huh?” And it was at that moment that I realized, “Whoa, could it be true?” Soon I started publishing my research papers, and I realized I was able to solve problems that people all over the world had failed to solve. At this point I really opened up. After graduating from Stanford, I moved on to a position at a large company in Silicon Valley, and I realized that all of this was for me. I could be a physicist! I could do these things. And so I wanted to experience more. In my first year in Silicon Valley, I ended up getting eight patents.

What did you invent?

I worked on computer chip manufacture and creating a new generation of transistors. First, we had to come up with processes to construct transistors with new materials. The main problem was developing an “overetch” process that worked with the new materials. Imagine you have a table and on that table you have a sheet of granite and on that granite you have a sheet of butter. And now I want to carve out a shape in that butter without damaging the layer of granite underneath. That was the old process of etching polysilicon on top of silicon dioxide. It’s really easy to remove the butter from the granite. When we move to the low-resistivity metal, the metal was tungsten, one of the hardest substances that exists. And so imagine trying to remove a layer of granite on top of a layer of Jell-O without damaging the Jell-O. This process is known as the over-etch. In order for the process to be commercially viable, you have to remove the granite at a rate 100 times faster than you remove the Jello — whatever process you use. Everybody in the world was stuck at 30 to one. I started working on the problem and in a month’s time I had achieved infinity to one. That resulted in three or four patents.

And then another problem is that when silicon chips were being made, every time there’s a step in the processing where test wafers are tested at the end of every step, and are thrown away — a huge waste of money and resources. Same with testing chips. So the question was, How can we ensure that everything was done right without using test wafers and chips? My company had hired a man named Moshe Sarfaty who had the idea that if you monitor the light emitted from the plasmas that are used in many of the steps for making computer chips, you can probably tell what’s going on in the chip. They got nowhere after a couple of years of working with this idea, but then I came in with my background in spectroscopy. Very quickly, I solved all their problems. And that resulted in four or five more patents.

Based on these patents and the work I did in industry, chances are my technology is in your computer chips, wherever you are!

So why aren’t you a millionaire?

Well, at the time I had over a half-million dollars in stock options that were growing. And then the Silicon Valley crash happened in 2001. By that time, I had a bad taste in my mouth for industry. First of all it was all male, and then when the dotcom bubble burst, the way people turned on each other was very distasteful to me. And while I wanted to talk about the universe, everybody wanted to follow stocks all day and talk about silicon wafers.

So I felt very unfulfilled, and I missed the interaction with students. I walked away and took an $80,000-a-year pay cut to come back to academics. And I joined the Supernova Cosmology Project — the group that discovered dark energy. It was the very first research in physics that I did when I was between undergraduate and graduate school, and I worked in Saul Perlmutter’s group. I decided, “Okay, let me go back and work with these guys.” I wanted to do cosmology. So I went and actually worked on technology for a new satellite and new observatories. And now that technology is being deployed. I was not the inventor of the technology — I just helped to develop it at a critical time early on. Again, I made a good name for myself research-wise.

This composite image shows a superbubble in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way located about 160,000 light years from Earth.

Composite image showing a superbubble in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way located about 160,000 light years from Earth. Click to see larger size. Photo: NASA
What is your primary field of study now?

I ultimately decided I would do cosmology. Now, this was a humungous risk: I had established myself as a name in the technology side of science, and now I was just going to completely leave that behind and do something different. I was interested in big data, statistics, and this problem of mapping out the galaxy. Basically, if you map the locations and the motions and the compositions of, say, a hundred million stars, you can trace and disentangle the individual substructures that came together to build up our galaxy. And based on the answer that you get, that actually impacts how our universe came into existence. So the idea here is that you observe the nearby universe and that tells you something about the universe as a whole.

These types of studies are called near-field cosmology. My first big paper on this topic came in May or April of this year in Astronomical Journal. And that instantaneously made me one of the world’s leading experts on astrostatistics. Recently I went to North Carolina to a meeting of the Who’s Who of cosmology and these big data problems — exoplanets, near-field cosmology. It was really crazy for me because I still see myself as that kid from Mississippi. I’m always in these rooms with the top super scientists in the world, and I just never get used to it. Because I’m still a groupie. For me, hanging out with these people is like hanging out with Brad Pitt for a regular person.

Now I’m heavy into computation and statistics; I do astronomical observing. My colleagues and I just won a proposal to use the four-meter telescope in Chile — the dark energy camera. I also run small telescopes. We have one Florida, one in Chile, and one in Arizona that we use that are about one meter in diameter. I’ve also had to invent a couple of things in order to continue moving forward. I’ve never been more excited about my research.

At TEDGlobal 2012, you talked about leading the One Telescope project, which aims to supply each nation in the world with at least one research-grade telescope. Why is this project so important?

Let me tell you something: If we put a hundred of these telescopes on Earth, we are not revolutionizing the developing world, we are revolutionizing Earth. This would be unprecedented. And given my life experience, I recognize the impact of culture and identity on the choices that a person makes. If you put a telescope in a country and you create an educational outreach program around it, you’re going to get the kid here and there who says, “Hey, I want to be involved in this,” and they’ll spend their entire summer doing observations and taking data and analyzing data.

There is a company in Germany that can deliver fully robotic, incredibly robust observatories for way less than anyone else can do it, only $200,000. This is for an entire observatory. In today’s era of science and astrophysics, exoplanets are being discovered left and right. It takes only a tiny telescope to do it. And so anyone with a research-grade telescope can, for relatively little money, be participating in the discovery and characterization of exoplanets.

SANSA telescope

One of South Africa National Space Agency’s radio dishes for satellite tracking.
How do I know this? Because I’m a part of an exoplanet discovery collaboration. The camera that does it is called the KELT Survey. It has two really tiny little cameras, one in South Africa and one in Arizona. And when they see what looks like it might be an exoplanet candidate, it has to be followed up with other telescopes. And the telescopes that follow up range in aperture from 25cm to 60cm for the most part — the vast majority of them. This is the size of backyard telescope like many people own. Now, all the people who participate are planet discoverers. So can you imagine when people in Zambia or Mangaia in the Cook Islands can say, “Hey, we discovered this planet with our telescope!” And these kids are doing this sort of thing. Just as my self-image was modified when I saw that I could do science, theirs will be too.

But it’s not just about encouraging young scientists in developing countries. Right now we’re in the era of survey science. In my collaboration, there are certain objects that we discover that are anomalous. They don’t make sense. We discovered them in this survey data. And they have to be followed up with telescopes to find out what exactly they are. The fact is, there are not enough telescopes in the world currently to do this follow up. And there are also very special events that happen. Recently, the nearest supernova in several decades happened. Imagine suddenly you could turn a hundred telescopes around the world to this event. You can also follow it constantly. The sun will never set on a worldwide network of telescopes. There’s so much that you can do by just having this ability.

I think ultimately all it takes is finding people who actually want to pursue these goals of educational and scientific development and connecting us with funders and enabling science. Let’s combine everybody into a single intellectual community, and let’s do really amazing science.

Are you still doing outreach and development in Africa?

Yes. In a week I leave to go to South Africa to do a lecture tour at schools. The Systemic Education and Extramural Development Support (SEEDS) program is an initiative of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to strengthen education in South Africa. I’ll also visit Soweto where I received two grants from the US State Department to form a hands-on astronomy data education grant in collaboration with the University of Johannesburg. Then I’ll visit Cape Town visiting schools for education outreach.

When I look at my colleagues in the developing world, their problem is not that they’re ignorant. Their problem is that they’re broke, and their governments are broke, and can’t spend money on certain things because there’s a problem of development and poverty. Spending money on basic science can look like a waste in these circumstances. But human beings, we’re more than just survival. We are artists, we’re scientists… There’s a story of Africa, a perception that it’s a place without science or scientists. And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy when you don’t enable them to do real science.

Hakeem Oluseyi at TEDGlobal 2012

Speaking at Fellows Talks, TEDGlobal 2012. Photo: Ryan Lash
How has the experience of the TED Fellowship had an impact on you?

It was the first time that I really felt on an emotional level that someone appreciated and recognized my outreach work — something the science community doesn’t always value. That really means a lot to me. And it was at TED that I saw the value in openness, in open source. I was inspired there to start a second project — combining people into a global intellectual community through openness. So every time we decide, “OK, let’s take some guys and start a new astronomy program at the University of Nairobi,” for example, where will they get lectures from? Where will they get the proprietary knowledge that everybody needs to have in order to actually do the science? I’ve broken into that knowledge circle, and I’m planning to give it away. That was completely inspired by TED.

Is there anything else you want to do at all besides astrophysics?

I would very much like to do work in the media. I love to tell stories, entertain, educate and inspire. I definitely want to do that. I’d love to write books.

Will we someday see you on television as a presenter about astrophysics?

It doesn’t have to be astrophysics. It could be science of any sort. I know a lot of science stories no one else knows, for the most part. For example, I gave a talk at this Unitarian Universalist church on Sunday, on humanity’s evolving understanding of the universe. But the way I tell it is very different from “You had the Greeks — fast-forward 1,400 years and you get Copernicus.” I know I’m the kind of science storyteller that no one ever sees.

Life chose me for what wonderful things I’m doing. I never set out to be Mister Inspiring Speaker or Mister Science Communicator. But often, after giving talks and doing these sorts of things, people come up and say, “Oh, man. You’re so inspiring.” Or “I thought I was stupid until I met you.” In other words, I help people see you can be who you are, and just through love and hard work you can make it in the field. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from. Impacting people’s lives in that way is something that gives me a lot of fulfillment. There really isn’t anyone like me who’s delivering this message.


Sunday, February 1, 2015


Okoya couldn't find a doll that looked like his niece, so he decided to do something about it. Now his dolls are outselling Barbie.

Queens of Africa, the black doll line that's outselling Barbie in Nigeria, started as a personal mission seven years ago. Taofick Okoya was frustrated that he couldn't find a black doll on the market for his niece. "I happen to be the kind of person that doesn't enjoy complaining and criticizing without taking any action," the 43-year-old businessman tells So he researched making a doll that Nigerian girls could identify with: one with their skin color and traditional African fashion. 

"It became a frontline project for me due to the resistance the dolls received because of their color and outfits from most children and distributors," he explains. "I spent about two years campaigning on the importance and benefits of dolls in the African likeness. During that process, I realized greater social issues such as low self esteem, which led to the passion to make a change in the coming generation. It's been a tough journey but one I have enjoyed."

Okoya created two lines of dolls, Queens of Africa (which come with three outfits, four accessories, and cost 1,300 to 3,500 naira, or $6.75 to $18.18) and Naija Princesses (which come with two outfits, two accessories, and cost 500-1,000 naira, or $2.60 to $5.19). Each doll represents a different African tribe (Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa).

Okoya sells 6,000 to 9,000 dolls a month, Reuters reports—10 to 15 percent of Nigeria's small but growing toy market, by Okoya's estimation. The dolls have quite a few fans. Okoya shares one's testimony: "Usually the black dolls are so dark, I don't buy them because they look nothing like me. I think that if they had maybe a better variety of black dolls with different colors like yours, that would be a lot better. No two black people are the same color: Some have darker and some have lighter pigments. Like many other African Americans, I have never found a doll that really fits me 'till now." 

And the dolls' Facebook page consistently gets new comments. "You can be sure my future daughter will be playing with those," one wrote on it. "Thank you for your hard work and keep on doing it, you are helping our girls in being more confident and proud of themselves."

Queens of Africa's reach is global thanks to the web, where Okoya accepts online orders for the dolls. He says after Nigeria, the greatest demand is from America, Brazil, Europe, the Ivory Coast, and South Africa. But despite this, he doesn't feel the brand has made it yet. It won't "until it reaches every child of African decent all over the world and is a symbol of pride by making them appreciate who they are as an African." talked with Okoya about the evolution of the line, the importance of its message to little girls (including his own), and how it's changing the toy industry.


How do you feel about the dolls outselling Barbie? 

I don't believe Mattel sees the Nigerian market as a priority, yet their product has great influence on the psyche of the children here and affirms certain values contrary to our society. My mission is to make the Queens of Africa [what Barbie isn't to Africans] a symbol of hope, trust, and confidence by promoting African history, culture, and fashion. 

The dolls are meant to "subconsciously promote African heritage," according to your mission statement. Why is this message so important? 

I have a daughter, Azeezah, whom I named one of the dolls after. As her father, I wanted the best for her and to teach her to become a confident, responsible adult. I quickly realized that my direct influence on her development was about 40 percent and the remaining 60 percent was from her surroundings, i.e., her toys, TV, friends, etc. [These] were mostly subliminal and had a longer lasting impact on her [that] was somewhat out of my control. Even though we live in Nigeria, there was a lot of Western influence, which might have been responsible for her wishing she was white. It made me aware that I needed to make her proud and happy being a black African girl, and not limit it to her alone as this was a common trend amongst the younger generation. The Queens of Africa became a platform to achieve this. 

There are other toys out there like Lammily and GoldieBlox that aim to send a healthier messages about body image and career aspirations to little girls. How does Queens of Africa add to that dialogue? 
The power of toys and play tools cannot be underestimated. It could be a greater influencer than we realize. I have had to tweak the looks of the dolls to get acceptance as we needed the sales to sustain the project. As our sales and acceptance grow, we are becoming more confident, and this will reflect in our next and subsequent collection. 


Right. You told Reuters to start, you have to sell slim dolls and hope to make larger-bodied ones once the brand is built.  But does this make you feel like you're sending a harmful message in any way? 
What is really frustrating is the generalization that Africans all have to look a certain way or be a certain color. That is stereotyping. There are slim Africans, plus-size Africans, dark Africans, fair skinned Africans, flat-nose Africans, and pointed-nose Africans. We will do our best to represent as much of the diversity of Africans but surely not all at once. Some people have critiqued us quite harshly from an ignorant standpoint, forgetting we are relatively quite young. The responsibility to represent Africa in a doll or product is not an easy task. Our diversity is one of our greatest attributes. 

Where do you hope to take the line next? 

I am looking to go global! We are hoping to release songs with positive lyrics, a TV series with encouraging storylines, and [to] get the dolls on all major shelves around the world! I have been told that our products will not make mainline stores in the States as it will be seen as a specialist product. As such, [it] will be limited to specialist stores in certain areas. I am looking to prove them wrong. 


Saturday, January 31, 2015

20 Things You May Not Know About Africa But Really Should

The World’s First Planned City Was in Egypt

An Egyptian city called Kahun was the world’s first planned city. Plans for the city divided it into two sections. While wealthier residents lived on one side of the city, the other part housed “ordinary people” who did not have as much wealth. The city also featured a system of stone gutters that ran through the center of every street.

Drainage system

Ancient Egyptians Mastered Sewage and Drainage Systems

When most people think of ancient cities of any kind, they automatically eliminate the luxuries we are used to today. While ancient Egypt certainly didn’t have complex sewage systems that people are accustomed to now, this ancient civilization had already developed an efficient sewage and drainage system that served as evidence of the value they placed on cleanliness. An American urban planner noted the “great importance” that ancient Egyptians placed on cleanliness, especially in a city known as Amarna. “Toilets and sewers were in use to dispose waste,” the planner noted. “Soap was made for washing the body. Perfumer and essences were popular against body odor. A solution of natron was used to keep insects from houses…. Amarna may have been the first planned ‘garden city.’” According to historians, ancient Egyptians were “pretty adept with drainage construction” by 2500 B.C.

African People Were Making Steel for More than 1,500 Years

Evidence was discovered in 1978 that suggests East Africans had already mastered making steel. Assistant professor of anthropology Peter Schmidt and professor of engineering Donald H. Avery found that Africans had produced carbon steel in preheated forced draft furnaces as long as 2,000 years ago. The method was “technologically more sophisticated than any developed in Europe until the mid-nineteenth century.”

Africans Were the First to Organize Fishing Expeditions

It is believed that African people were the first to organize fishing expeditions at least 90,000 years ago. A variety of harpoon points have been discovered in Katanda, Congo, which academics believe points to the existence of an early fishing-based culture.

The Oldest Table of Prime Numbers Was Discovered in Africa

In 1960, Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt discovered the Ishango Bone in Lake Edward. The small lake borders Congo and Uganda and is believed to be the oldest table of prime numbers to ever be discovered.

Ethiopia Was Recognized as One of the World’s Greatest Empires

One modern scholar wrote of the city of Ethiopia and claimed that, “In the first half of the first millennium C.E., [Ethiopia] was ranked as one of the world’s greatest empires.” A Persian cleric of the third century also noted that Ethiopia was the third most important state in the world behind Persia and Rome.

Egyptians Didn’t Just Build Beautiful Pyramids, They Built Mansions as Well

Many people don’t think of lavish mansions when they imagine ancient Egypt, but it is believed that these master craftsmen were building mansions long before anyone else. Egyptian mansions were discovered in Kahun. These large homes had more than 70 rooms and a variety of different quarters for masters, women, servants and more.
 building in stone

West Africans Were Some of the First People to Build in Stone

In the Tichitt-Walata region of Mauritania, archaeologists have discovered “large stone masonry villages” that date back to at least 1100 B.C. These villages consisted of somewhat circular compounds that were connected through a series of “well-defined” streets.

Old Checks Have Been Found in Ancient Ghana

That’s right. Checks actually aren’t as new of an invention as many people would want to believe. There is evidence to suggest that the people of ancient Ghana may have used checks. An Arab geographer, Ibn Haukal, was visiting a region of ancient Ghana in 951. Haukal wrote an account of an old check he discovered for more than 40,000 golden dinars that was written to a merchant in the city of Audoghast.

Some African Civilizations Used Glass Windows

There is evidence that some African civilizations were already using glass windows. One academic wrote of a residence belonging to a Ghanaian Emperor in 1116 and described the home as a “well-built castle, thoroughly fortified, decorated inside with sculptures and pictures, and having glass windows.” Other excavations at the Malian City of Gao also revealed evidence of glass windows.

Gold Mining Took Place on a Massive Scale All Across Africa

West Africans were mining for gold all throughout history, and one modern writer said that early African people actually managed to mine up to 3,500 tons of gold. According to one modern writer, this is worth a staggering “$30 billion in today’s market.” South Africans also saw great achievements in gold mining. Another modern writer noted that, “The estimated amount of gold ore mined from the entire region by the ancients was staggering, exceeding 43 million tons. The ore yielded nearly 700 tons of pure gold, which today would be valued at over $7.5 billion.”

Mali in the 14th Century Was a Very Urbanized Civilization

Italian art and architecture scholar Sergio Domian noted the incredible work that has been discovered in Mali, explaining that Mali had “laid the foundation” for an urban civilization.” “At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated,” Domian wrote.

West African Scholars of the 16th Century Were Known to Have Thousands of Books

West African scholars had incredible numbers of books in the 16th century. In fact, they often had so many books that a library of a little over 1,000 books was considered child’s play. West African scholar Professor Ahmed Baba of Timbuktu is recorded as saying he had the smallest library of all his friends and colleagues with “only 1600 volumes.”

Benin Art of the Middle Ages Was of Exceptional Quality

An official of the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde said most pieces of Benin art were “equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique … Technically, these bronzes represent the very highest possible achievement.”

The People of Ancient African Civilizations Had Frequently Built Impressive Walled Cities

Long before the age of technology and the development of mechanics that helped many civilizations create their walled cities, the people of Nigeria had already erected an impressive walled city. The Nigerian City of Eredo was built around the ninth century and was surrounded by a 100-mile-long, 70-foot-high wall. The wall encompassed 400 square miles in its interior. Scholars have pointed to multiple examples of ancient walled cities that were discovered throughout Africa.

The Capital City of Kanem-Bornu Was One of the Largest Cities in the 17th Century World

The capital city of Kanem-Bornu, Ngazargamu, was one of the largest cities of its time. According to an architectural scholar, the city housed a “quarter of a million people” and had a system of roughly 660 streets. Academics also believe the wide, unbending streets throughout the city are evidence of careful planning that took place in order to create the large city.
At its most stable period, it was said that any woman wearing gold could safely walk the streets unaccompanied, according to This was at a time when few women ventured out alone in London or in Paris for fear of attack.

The City of Carthage Was Opulent and Impressive

By the third century B.C., the city of Carthage grew to be an impressive collection of lavish homes and had a staggering population. The city off the coast of Tunisia is believed to have housed at least 700,000 people and contained streets lined with towering homes that were, on average, six stories high.

Africans Were Already Studying the Stars and Creating a Lunar Calendar

Ruins of a 300 B.C. astronomical observatory in Kenya serve as a reminder of just how advanced ancient Egyptians were when it came to studying the stars and other heavenly bodies. It is believed that Africans were already mapping movements of stars such as Triangulum, Aldebaran, Bellatrix, Central Orion and the moon. They were believed to be creating a lunar calendar of 354 days.

Ancient Africans Were Highly Advanced in the Field of Medicine

According to the Edinburgh Medical Journal in 1884, surgeons in ancient Africa were routinely completing effective autopsies and Caesarean operations. The surgeons already had a strong understanding of antiseptics and anesthetics and had a variety of natural remedies for illnesses and other medical conditions.

Ancient Egyptians Had Water Purifiers

A ruined mosque in the Kenyan city of Gedi revealed evidence of early water purifiers. The mosque held what appeared to be a water purifier made of limestone that the ancient Egyptians used for recycling water.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Is this Britain's smartest schoolboy? 11-year-old boy with higher IQ than Einstein

AN 11-year-old schoolboy has joined Mensa after scoring higher than Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Albert Einstein in an IQ test.

Ramarni Wilfred started showing signs of genius as a toddler, when his favourite book was an encyclopedia.

He could read and write by the time he started reception at school and last year, at the age of 10 and still in primary school, wrote a philosophy paper on fairness that earned him a 2:1 and a mock Oxford graduation.

When his reception class wanted to move him up a year, mum Anthea objected, wanting him to grow up with other kids his age.

Ramarni WilfredBoy Genius: Ramarni Wilfred is a member of Mensa at the age of 11
Prof. Hawking, Microsoft founder Gates and Einstein all have 160 IQs. Ramarni scored 162, putting him in the top 1% in the UK.

Anthea, 37, said: “He’s still just a little boy doing normal childhood stuff. While he reads the New Scientist and the Sky at Night, he still plays with his dog, watches the Disney Channel and reads comics.

“Mensa allows him to talk and be with other people as clever as he is for the things that go over my head.

“He doesn’t think it’s a big deal. I love his humility and I love having my own personal walking, talking dictionary/thesaurus/calculator!”

Ramarni, who will be starting Year 8 at secondary school next month, harbours hopes of one day studying at Oxford and becoming an astrophysicist.

The modest youngster, from Romford, Essex, said: “I can’t begin to compare myself to these great men whose hard work clearly proves that they are true geniuses.

“This is a great opportunity and I think it can open a lot of doors for me. But I also believe that having a high IQ isn’t that important unless you do something really special with it.”

PA / GettyProfessor Stephen HawkingBetter than Best: And it was higher than Professor Stephen Hawking
Ramarni’s former teacher, Valerie Mulae, described him as “remarkable”, adding: “He just stood out. He shone.”

Mensa’s chief executive, John Stevenage, said: “Anyone who registers an IQ score which places them in the top two per cent of the population has done remarkably well. The score Ramarni achieved therefore is very good and shows he has great potential.”


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Maya Penn: Artist. Coder. CEO. Philanthropist. Ninth-grader.

Maya Penn is a successful 14-year-old entrepreneur who wants to change the world by using her art and her business to help the planet and getting girls involved in tech.

I spent an hour talking on the phone to Maya Penn. We giggled and chatted about pizza and sushi, Facebook, bedtimes, and sleepovers. I forgot, for a moment, that I was in the TechRepublic office and not in my childhood bedroom, curled up on the rug with my old corded purple phone in my hand.

I had made friends with a 14-year-old. But more than that, I had made a connection with a young businesswoman -- one that I truly believe has the ability to change the world for the better. When we hung up, I wanted to call her back and pick her brain some more -- to ask her about her business plans, her book deals, her sociological insights, and her hopes for the future of technology.

In short, I was completely inspired.

Penn is the CEO of Maya's Ideas, which she founded when she was eight years old. Penn is an entrepreneur, a technologist, a philanthropist, an artist, an author, an animator, and a coder. Maya's Ideas is a site where she sells eco-friendly clothing and accessories like scarves, hats, and hair clips. She started the business because she liked sewing headbands, and people started asking her to make them. She began selling them on Etsy, but quickly realized she could build a brand of her own. And, this is more than just a cute idea -- Maya's Ideas generated more than $30,000 in 2012.

Penn lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her mother and father, two dogs, and two cats. Her parents collectively homeschool her. She is currently in the ninth grade, but she is as busy as any other startup founder you'll find.

"My mom especially always really encouraged me to do what I love, and my dad has opened me up to finding things I love," she said.

One of those loves is for technology. When Penn was just four years old, her father taught her to take apart a computer and put it back together again. It was amazing, she said, because she had never seen what a technology device was made of, or what it was capable of.

Last year, she gave a TED talk for TEDWomen2013 about being a young female entrepreneur. It was her first big speaking engagement, and she admitted she was very nervous.

"That's good it doesn't show, but I was definitely nervous," she said. "That was one of the biggest stages I have ever spoken on, and it went global."

Indeed it did. The talk has almost a million views on the TED website, and Penn has been asked to travel and do many other speaking engagements since then. "I do enjoy public speaking because I get to make a lot of new friends after I speak," she said.

At the TED talk, Penn debuted her first animation short, "Malicious Dishes," an animated series about computer viruses, which she plans to turn into full-length episodes soon.

The idea stemmed several years ago, when Penn had a virus in her computer. While she was waiting for the anti-virus programs to finish scanning, she wondered, "What if viruses in my computer have personalities?" So she drew an animation about the stories of these viruses, who traveled via USB drives around a computer world that humans were unaware of. Penn also drew another series called "The Pollinators" about bees and other pollinators and their impact on the environment.

And, her animation isn't limited to the digital world. She is an author of two children's books, which she illustrated herself. Penn is currently working on another book, a memoir about her journey as a young entrepreneur and her advice for children with similar aspirations.

As if that wasn't enough, Penn is also a self-described coder. She coded her company's first website on her own by learning basic HTML. She was 10.

"My interest in coding spurred from the company. At the time I was trying to get a more professional and customized website, and I wondered how people built websites from scratch, what were all the nooks and crannies, key parts of how websites were built, the actual raw code," she said.

The process helped her see how much work went into making a simple web page. Now, she is learning Python by taking a class with her father. She doesn't necessarily want to start a business around coding (yet), but she sees the importance in understanding it as a technology and business tool. The ultimate definition of being "tech savvy," she said, is being somewhat familiar with code, and that's especially important for girls.

"The field of tech isn't very even, gender wise, and I think that that really needs to change," Penn said. "Anybody can code, no matter your gender, race, how old you are...we need girls to represent and say 'Look we like to code and program and script just as much as anyone else does. We are just as capable,' and I speak on that to my nonprofits."

Oh, did I mention she donates 10 to 20 percent of her profits to nonprofits? Environmental stewardship is one of Penn's most notable platforms, and she is very knowledgeable about climate change and sustainability. She has her own non-profit, Maya's Ideas 4 the Planet. She also volunteers regularly at local food banks and recycling events in Atlanta.

She's currently working on a project to make biodegradable sanitary pads for women in developing countries that either do have to miss school when they are on their menstrual cycles or use mud and rocks, or other things harmful to their health. Traditional sanitary pads are harmful to the environment, so Penn is trying to fix that.

Penn is incredibly eloquent when she speaks, but she also has an infectious energy, and people have noticed. She has made a splash in the business world already, and has been written about by plenty of publications, especially since her TED Talk.

One of the most amazing things about children is their ability to simplify things that adults would ordinarily see as complicated. If a problem exists, there is usually an easy solution, and all we have to do is harness it. Penn is very wise for her age, but the simplistic honesty in her answers can't help but make you smile.

"When a lot of companies grow, they become too isolated with their customers, and might kind of ignore them in a way," she said. "Customers and fans are what got their business to grow so big, so why would you ignore them?"

Running a business has helped her grow both spiritually and mentally, Penn said. "You learn stuff in business you can use in everyday life, stuff you can't learn anywhere else. You have to just love doing it it and be willing to put the hard work and commitment into it."

For now, Penn is content with staying as busy as possible, trying to get as much done during the week and learning through both school and work. She knows it will take some time because, after all, her bedtime is still 9:00 p.m., and she's not supposed to work on weekends.

"I just have to see what the future will hold because I have so many different passions focused on so many different fields. I'm not even sure where all this will take me, but whatever I want to do, I want to give back in some way," she said.

When I asked her, what, more than anything, she hopes people say about her in 20 years, her response had nothing to do with her many business ideas -- those ideas she is already afraid she doesn't have enough hours in the day to do.

"I hope people take away that no matter who you are, where you're from, what your background is, you should be able to do anything you dream of and always do something that can help other people, help the planet in some way," Penn said. "You don't have to start a nonprofit to give back. It's the little things."

In her own words...
What are some of your other hobbies?

"I hang out with my friends, have sleepovers and different things like that. I go on church trips and like tennis and playing piano. I personally like origami. I don't know why I recently got interested. And sculpting, really almost any visual art I can get my hands on."

What food do you like?

"I like a variety of things...Pizza, sushi, I also like cake. And this is not a food, it's a drink, but me and my mom make green shakes from different apples, kale, broccoli. We eat organic and natural foods too, which are really nice and taste really good."

What tech tool are you most excited for?

"I personally am excited for Oculus Rift. I'm already into gaming myself, and I've always been interested in designing one of my own games in the future."

Who are your mentors?

"I know one is Lauren Faust, an animator and writer. She has worked on a lot of shows like Powerpuff Girls, and is one of my biggest inspirations for going forward with animation and my artistic passion... Pat Mitchell, the CEO for Paley Center of Media. I met her through the TEDWomen talk, and she is a really amazing woman and very inspirational and a good friend of mine. Also, Alexis Ohanian, one of the co-founders of Reddit. I met him on book tour for one of his new books."

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

"It's really important to live your life to the fullest and do what you love. Go for it, do it when you want to do it. And don't let [anything] set you back, if you love doing it and really want to just go ahead."