Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Muddle East

Some have responded to the recent Paris atrocities by saying, “So what? The People of the Middle East are suffering far worse at the hands of the West.”

You can feel bad for the people of Paris and still point out the hypocrisy of allowing Syria to be torn apart without a whimper of public protest, or 300 African schoolgirls disappearing with only moderate protest, or so many other appalling events around the world that do not excite Western news media.

Once we start down the road of justifying the unjustifiable because something even worse happened somewhere else where do we stop?

And when we start taking sides, we become blind to the fact that it is not just one side fueling the flames. Russia, the US (and allies), and local Islamic states all to varying degrees are fueling the conflict, providing weapons and money to back their very narrowly-defined very short-term interests. What is the role of Iran or Saudi Arabia in stoking up conflict? What is Turkey doing? Would the Syrian crisis have ended peacefully long ago if the Assad regime had not been guaranteed outside support?

The US and other Western countries blundering into this whole sorry mess is just one part of the equation. That on its own can’t explain all the instability. You think the Russians would have learnt from the horrible mess they got themselves into in Afghanistan, but no.

In the current Middle East conflict, it is very difficult to make sense of anything if you support any side as all sides have made terrible decisions.

Trace through the sequence of events in Egypt, as just one example:
  • Arab Spring protests – huge crowds in the streets, soldiers who refused to take orders to mow them down
  • a democratic election returning a Muslim Brotherhood government
  • follow-on protests as the government failed to meet expectations
  • a military coup

Some of this you can put down to Western interference. The Arab Spring protests were genuine as far as I can tell, as were the protests against the newly elected government. Where Western interference kicked in was the fact that the military coup was tolerated where such a takeover in most other parts of the world would be condemned. So it is a mistake to explain all problems in the Middle East through a lens of Western imperialism. It is a factor, but not the only one.

Looking more widely, putting everything down simply to Western malevolence does not explain the deep animosities between the different strands of Islam who are doing each other far more damage than they are doing to foreigners. Nor does it explain the roles of Russia and other regional powers like Iran and Turkey.

Beware the logic fail of “enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The biggest enemy in this conflict is lack of moral clarity arising from taking a side and sticking with it.

Yale: It’s About Racism

I am on a short visit to the University of Michigan during my sabbatical and all hell is breaking loose at university campuses including Yale, where there have been angry protests.

Back home, campuses have been in turmoil over protests against institutional racism. I hardly expected US universities to emulate this to make me feel at home, yet here we are.

I read the original Yale email and the Erika Christakis response. It was the latter that apparently triggered the anger. Taken out of context, that email was not that big a deal (decide for yourself; read it here). Why did it elicit such an angry response?

Let’s see what the original email said – this is the most relevant part:

However, Halloween is also unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface. These same issues and examples of cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation are increasingly surfacing with representations of Asians and Latinos.
 Yale is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, undergraduate and graduate, definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.
 The culturally unaware or insensitive choices made by some members of our community in the past, have not just been directed toward a cultural group, but have impacted religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc. In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact…
The original email is an insipid mealy-mouthed attempt at labeling offensive racism as cultural insensitivity. The Christakis email attacks this as taking choices away from students.

Imagine for a moment it was the Halloween custom to dress up as Nazi concentration camp guards. Would labeling that as cultural insensitivity, with a mild attempt at discouraging it, be the appropriate institutional response? Would slapping down that mild admonition as impinging on freedom of speech be taken lightly by those targeted by Antisemitism?

In South Africa, a recurrent response from those who don’t get that racism is still a problem is that black people should just move on – apartheid is over. In the US, I detect a similar attitude – that race is an issue of the past. Unfortunately it is not, because people of color and minorities in general still suffer abuse on a daily basis. Politicians exploit prejudice; why is Trump for example able to lead the GOP field with openly xenophobic attitudes?

Racism in all forms is repulsive. It’s time everyone accepted that. Then possibly the victims can move on.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

DHL – not again

I’ve been in the US for almost a month and had fun ordering things off the Internet – and even had some pleasant surprises when I found I could get cameras I was interested in cheaper in South Africa. What makes this specially surprising and pleasing is camera manufacturers do not honour warranties outside the country of sale on most models – a recipe for price gouging. Maybe they do overcharge for expensive models but entry-level Nikon DSLR cameras pretty sharply priced in South Africa (particularly with a few bundled lenses), as are some lightweight digitals (Canon in this case, I found to be well priced).

Mostly the experience has been good – things I ordered arrived promptly and were as advertised. Only one small glitch post-delivery so far: I ordered a book at a great price (through AbeBooks, not Amazon – I get to Amazon soon). It was advertised as an “international edition” and “NOT from Asia”. It turned out to be a cheap Indian edition, not for sale outside that region, and the packing wasn’t great either: it arrived with a split on the spine.

Otherwise, things went pretty well – good pricing, prompt delivery. I even managed to buy a Mac at a lower price than education discount.

Back in 2013, I had a whinge about how DHL was incompetent at delivering books to me from the US. I had tried to order books in time for a university-wide launch of books published that year, and I wanted copies to sell in case there was demand. Since there was limited time, I paid extra for priority delivery. To cut a long story short, I ended up with 3 boxes of books and the supplier refunded the cost.

Why? DHL’s idea of international priority shipping was to get the books to Europe then dump them into the mail system as “Surface Air Lift”, a non-priority service with no tracking.

Let me be clear here: I a talking about DHL as a contractor for bulk budget shipping; when they do courier service at full price, they seem to do a whole lot better.

On this visit to the US, I have bought a number of things mostly from Amazon. Amazon has a network of delivery providers around the country and their less expensive services usually drop the package into the postal system at the last step. So far most things have arrived either at the earlier stage of the delivery window or before. Now I am drawing towards the close of my visit, I have one more item that is not going via one of Amazon’s priority services, with a delivery window of 17 November–3 December. This is a tad concerning as I am out of here 20 November. I only really started to worry though when I saw DHL was handling it.

Look what they’ve done so far.
Example of DHL US routing. Left: the DHL tracking site; each map panel illustrates a step of the routing.
The item originated in Jefferson City, TN. The destination is Ann Arbor, MI, near the top of the map (close to Detroit).

Look at the first step: it goes the wrong way, to Forest Park, GA – 2 days after it enters the system. Maybe this would make sense if this was the nearest airport but the delays between departures and arrivals are more typical of road transport. Then, a day later, it finds its way to Hebron, KY. Now, at least, it is going the right way. Then what do they do? Give it to the United States Postal Service. It has taken them the better part of 4 days after it left home base to shift it from the zone where USPS first class mail would take 3 days to deliver to where it would take USPS first class mail 2 days to deliver it.

An investment of 4 days to save 1 day is not actually a win.

The last map panel shows the stage of journey that USPS will handle – not all that close to the destination. It makes you wonder what the benefit is for Amazon in using DHL at all. True, the shipping cost is less than first class mail, but other Amazon providers I used up to now at least got the item to the same state before handing it to USPS or even delivered it the whole way.

So what if it gets here after I leave? It was fortunately not an expensive item – a second hand book. I am still a little hopeful as USPS since I started writing this has updated status and it is in Ann Arbor already, been sorted and sent to the final post office, a whole lot quicker than DHL has handled it.

I have to wonder about what DHL is up to. Delivering stuff is what they do. Why can’t they do it more efficiently than this? If even the much-maligned USPS is more efficient than them, shouldn’t they work out what their problem is?


The package arrived a day earlier than Amazon’s original estimate. I still wonder how DHL manages to be less efficient than the US Postal Service and stay in business. All’s well that ends well, I suppose. Here’s USPS’s final update:

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Why Student Protest Matters

Now police have rioted outside parliament, attacking protesters in a style that could wake PW Botha from the dead, we have to understand why all this matters. And indeed, the government apparently does think it matters, hence the panicked offer to fund next year’s zero fee increase without thinking through how to pay for it.

So why should the rest of us care?

Students, after all, are in a position of relative privilege. Even those who struggle to make it through their degree and battle to fund themselves are better off than the rural poor who have nothing – no prospect of a job, ever.

Why this matters is that revolutionary change comes from frustrated hope, not from hopelessness. The French Revolution occurred not because France was the worst-off country in Europe but because it was one of the first to emerge from feudalism. It was frustration at the pace of change that caused the revolution. A feudal society on the other hand is very stable. The peasants are stuck in a state of hopelessness. The aristocracy are far too strong to challenge and what little the peasants have can easily be taken away, leaving them to starve.

South Africa today is the most unequal society on the planet. The rural poor and the urban unemployed have very little hope of things getting better. The ANC, like feudal aristocrats, hands down just enough largesse by way of social grants and free but inadequate schooling to prevent total hopelessness. The section of the population that has most reason to be upset about the broken promise of “a better life for all” continues to vote ANC loyally. In the same way, feudal peasants would have willingly given their life for their lord, despite the manifest unfairness of a tiny minority growing wealthy without offering a glimmer of hope to those left out. Why? Because in a state of hopelessness, the hand that gives out inadequate mercies is all you have.

Students are in a different position. They do have hope. Once they graduate, a range of better jobs becomes open to them. But that hope is frustrated because of the high cost of higher education, inadequate financial aid for the poor and a sluggish economy that doesn’t guarantee work even for those who do qualify. An unemployed graduate who has no debt is a potential entrepreneur. Ask Mark Shuttleworth. The NSFAS scheme is not a great substitute for full funding – even if it were adequately funded – because it limits the option of entrepreneurship for unemployed graduates.

Are demands like no fees or no increase ridiculous? No, in the light of the benefit to society. But universities have to cover their costs. Government has created the problem by encouraging universities to increase numbers without covering the costs adequately. Something has to change.

Ideally, government should fund students fully so there is no class or wealth difference at universities. To do so would cost about 10% of tax revenues. You could argue that is a good investment because students who are successful will add significantly to the tax base. However, this ANC government is not about working for the common good, but is about lining the pockets of its cronies, so that is not going to happen. The best we can really hope for is full funding for those who really can’t afford fees.

What student protest can do is to wake up the rest of the excluded population to the fact that this government is not interested in anything but themselves. The big worry is that this turns into another Arab Spring movement that forces change but has no clear agenda of what that change should be. In Egypt, a military dictator was ousted, followed by an elected government that had protestors back out in the street. Next thing Egypt had yet another military dictator. Forcing change is not enough: we need to know what we are demanding. For this reason, we need to start talking seriously about what is really wrong in our society – what the deep entrenched causes of inequality are and how to address them.