Friday, 17 October 2014

Apple: just breaks

The real pleasure of using a Mac was that you took it out of the box, asked for your previous Mac personality to be transferred over, and you were in business. Things generally work, and that also runs to UNIX-style development, as is typical of many academic projects.

Whether you want a consistent user interface or to go to the command line and type

make install 

it all, in Jobs’s words, “just worked”.

The other side of the Jobsian design world is making things look cool, and that is part of the experience. You have hardware and software that you feel good about having in your home or workspace. Sometimes, that conflicts with practicality, but when both are right, it’s a winning formula. But if I have to sacrifice one, I would rather have something that works and looks a bit less cool than something that looks super cool and doesn’t work.

A while back I updated to Mac OS X 10.9 (“Mavericks” – also the name of a surfing spot with scary monster waves that occasionally kill a surfer). I was travelling at the time so I didn’t use it much before updating to 10.9.5, after which I ran into a problem printing. Could it be a coincidence that a release named after a beach with a vicious break is the turning point from “just works” to “just breaks”?

I use HP printers connected via and SMB server, a setup that has worked across a number of OS upgrades and different Macs. The Mac I have now, a fairly new MacBook Pro 15-inch, Mid 2012 model, bought around the time it was being phased out, should not have problems running the latest software. It is a well-tested design, and only barely out of production.

Another issue I have run into is that the new LLVM compilers don’t entirely work with projects designed to work with the GCC toolchain. Since a lot of what I do is shared projects with other academics running on Linux, this is an inconvenience, but one we will eventually work through. I could have stuck with the older version of Xcode a while longer, but wanted to try out Apple’s new Swift language.

Waiting until some of the earlier complaints about Mavericks were sorted seemed a safe step. But the printing thing was a surprise, and I have had no luck with extensive interactions on Apple’s Support Communities forum, nor so far with posting a bug report though Apple responded by asking for more information. I will add an update if I get a response on that.

Since Mavericks only broke printing and messed up compiling stuff I share with Linux projects, should I install Yosemite (a place of grand view sites and frosty glaciers – and where climbers occasionally fall to their deaths; do you see a pattern)? One major upgrade before, after all, only broke two things.

Does anyone else wonder why Apple can’t step back from their obsession with anorexic design (wow, look, I’m so thin, you can’t see me side on) and get back to making stuff that “just works”?

And could they please stop naming new releases of the OS after places that kill people?

Monday, 6 October 2014

Confusion will be my epitaph

Confusion will be my epitaph –  King Crimson
I recently wrote an article signalling that I wasn’t going to write another article about Agang. This is it.

I and about a dozen others were subject to an interdict in the Cape High Court on 4 August that prevents us from speaking for or acting as Agang. Nonetheless, when I heard an NEC meeting was called for 27 September with a wider invitation to membership, I showed up because I happened to be in Pretoria on the day, to observe rather than participate.

What I found was a bigger mess than I could have predicted, even though I had big problems with the previous interdict.

The two MPs, Andries Tlouamma and Mike Tshishonga, have had a major falling out and are fighting each other in the courts. The September NEC meeting was called by the Thishonga camp, and the Tlouamma camp planned a later meeting the same day.

I will not dwell on accusations and counter-accusations; rather I will try to fill in a few gaps based on conversations I have had with members and former members while in Gauteng.

But first, a question many members have asked: why did we not communicate with the membership more? When I was drafted into the Task Team and later the NEC that was deposed by the MPs, one of the major problems we faced was the collapse of finances meant we had lost our member database, so we could not email or SMS members. All we had was an outdated inaccurate dump of the Eastern Cape and Western Cape member and supporter database.

The MPs, with their parliamentary salaries and allowances, had the resources to travel the country, but they were doing so to rally support for themselves. When I was appointed party spokesperson, I had no access to the party’s twitter handle or Facebook page, and those responsible were not conceding control. It could take me up to 3 days to get an article posted on Facebook.

On now to something new: the question of how Tlouamma came to be in leadership and not in a minor position: deputy president and number two on the parliamentary list. Tlouamma is a shadowy character with no past. If you do a Google search, limiting results to before June 2013 when Agang was formed, you get nothing, even if you also try his alternative spelling, Plouamma. This is someone who claims to have had a leadership role in Cope, a party that was very much in the news as it imploded, and to have run multiple businesses.

So how could someone with zero public profile rise so fast?

Backtrack to the abortive DA deal. One Sakhiwo Yako claimed that the party was, as a consequence of this, going to replace Dr Ramphele as leader. This was strenuously denied at the time, and she claimed he had already been expelled as an EFF plant. Fast forward to March, when the party held its manifesto launch. That was an event plagued by disorganization as the venue was shifted at the last minute to Atteridgeville where local support was not particularly high, resulting in a struggle to fill the venue. But behind the scenes, worse was happening. Yako, according to my sources, was planning a comeback by busing in supporters to dominate the planned vote for the party’s new NEC. Leadership got word of this and stitched up a deal with, among others, Tlouamma, who had been in the Yako camp, to appoint rather than elect an NEC. This was possible because the party was operating under a very vague launch constitution that did not define processes for electing an NEC.

It was that deal that gave Tlouamma his relatively high positions. Exactly how this was possible is not clear, because those responsible are not talking.

Worse, there was confusion as to whether a new constitution had been adopted. All structures were told to organize on the basis of the “Conference Convening Constitution” (CCC), the only one available on the party web site – yet some claim this constitution was never formally adopted, and it was not lodged with the IEC as it should have been after a constitutional change.

This confusion was later to be at the root of the 29 June coup and the 4 August interdict – the MPs claimed that MAR (as Dr Ramphele is known to friends and supporters) had no right to act unilaterally as president, a right that is in the CCC. They counter this by insisting that the older constitution lodged with the IEC is the correct one. Their preferred constitution confers similar rights to the “founding cabinet” of which MAR was at the relevant time the sole remaining member so it is questionable that they would have won their interdict on this and other grounds had we contested.

But that is not really the point – fighting this out in the courts is not the way to go. The big flaw in the 29 June process was that putting 100 people in a room does not determine the will of the membership, particularly when those people are selected by a faction that aims to take over the party. That can only be corrected by a properly convened fully representative elective conference; fighting this out in the courts will not convene such a conference.

Some are claiming that Tlouamma got where he is because he is an ANC plant. This is of course possible, but it is also possible that he is simply someone with street cunning who is good at looking after himself. He uses classic coup tactics.  He orchestrates chaos keeping his name clear of the action, then walks in and claims to be restoring order. He discards anyone who could challenge him once their usefulness is over, and rewards lickspittle underlings who do his dirty work. Having used Yako to get into a position of power, he discarded Yako. Having used underlings to undermine the leader, he has paid off those of unquestioning loyalty with jobs out of his parliamentary budget, while discarding others who could challenge him like Thishonga.

Tshishonga, having leveraged him into a position of sidelining all who stood up to him, is now claiming to be the hero who is saving the party.

If the party is to recover from this, it has a daunting task. These are the things it will have to get straight:
  • proper democratic leadership elections – only possible if membership records are in order, and there is a consensus on how elections should take place:
    • does every member have an equal vote?
    • do absent members have the right to assign a proxy to someone who can be present?
    • instead of a vote per member, does each province have a fixed number of delegates?
      • if so, is this number the same for all provinces or
      • proportional to the membership of that province or
      • proportional to the population of that province?
  • adoption of a code of conduct to be agreed to by all members to:
    • prevent arbitrary people issuing press statements
    • prevent disputes from going to the courts without exhausting internal remedies
    • clarify rules and procedures for contesting leadership
  • adoption of a constitution that is not riddled with loopholes
  • recovery from an nonviable financial position
    • whatever MAR may be accused of, she was the only member with the capacity to fund-raise on the scale needed, and unwarranted and unfair accusations of fraud against her made it hard for her to fulfil this role even if she had stayed on
    • massive debt makes fund-raising for future campaigns futile – any positive cash flows will attract the interest of creditors whose sole interest in avoiding sequestration is fears that the party will not have the cash even to cover court costs
The 29 June coup has not taken the party forward. Indeed it has exacerbated tensions because it set a trend for parallel structures and fighting things out in the courts. None of the problems we were trying to solve in the Task Team that the MPs rejected have been solved, and they have only added to the problems. Even if Tshishonga succeeds in his court action against Tlouamma, due to go back to the Western Cape High Court late October, he will still face a huge uphill struggle, much of it his own doing.

Monday, 22 September 2014

On the nature of liberty: people versus things

Through much of the twentieth century, there were two competing theories of liberty.

One, the socialist view, is that capital is fundamentally evil and the state should run society at all levels.

The other, the libertarian view, is that state power is fundamentally evil and private enterprise should run society at all levels.

The fundamental flaw in the socialist view is that a monopoly of power leads to abuse, and that concentrating all power in the state makes such abuse inevitable.

The fundamental flaw in libertarian thought is the failure to recognize that any organization with the capacity to overwhelm the individual is a threat to liberty.

We leave aside the issues of economic merit – that is a subject worthy of fuller discussion. The only point I touch on here is that monopolies are inevitable in a system without constraints on the power of business, because business has the power to influence politics. There is therefore no such thing as a pure market economy: even if you start out with one, as soon as any business or consortium of businesses have the power to influence government and hence economic policy, they have an interest in subverting a free market to their ends.

Niger Delta pollution (source: EnviroNews Nigeria)
The major point I make here is that big business can be every bit as damaging to the individual as government, possibly more so, since a multinational has a cross-border reach. Consider for example massive pollution by the oil industry, which uses excessive profits in countries with weak regulation to help pay costs where they are called to account in more regulated countries. Ask someone in the Niger Delta if they would prefer a stronger more accountable government over unfettered rights of big multinationals.

If we therefore hold liberty of the individual to be the starting point of any rights discourse, we need to include in that discourse limiting the scope of business. And that leads to a fundamental that contradicts a substantial part of the rights logic in the US, where business has a virtually unlimited capacity to interfere in politics. Despite the concept in law of a legal person, a business is not, and should not be, treated as a person as regards rights. A business only has rights to the extent that those who control it and those controlled by it have rights. So it is ridiculous to argue freedom of speech in curtailing the right of business to make unlimited political donations.

In a world where businesses are accorded rights, individuals cease to matter except to the extent that they promote the interests of business, an inversion of any reasonable concept of rights. Unconstrained big business is therefore as much an undesirable outcome as unconstrained government.

Libertarians, particularly, the US kind, commonly make the mistake of seeing big government as the one and only enemy, totally neglecting the potential for harm by big business.

We need not choose between two evils: if we understand both as undesired outcomes, we can avoid both.

A business is not a person, it is a thing. Once we accord it rights, we damage the rights of real people.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Agang One Last Time (I hope)

Those following the Agang saga will know that the two MPs were trying to gain control of the party through the courts. What follows is my personal position, rather than that of all involved. Even so, when I talk about fundraising, I mean for all concerned, not just for myself.


Let’s briefly review the timeline that leads to here:
  • 7 May election – despite doing badly, Agang wins two seats
    • at this stage the party has deep problems: a huge debt, communication with members and supporters breaks down, the member database is not accessible because of unpaid bills, the NEC is collapsing because of resignations
  • 12 June – fraud allegations against the leader surface from an unconventional source – a “provincial spokesperson” Donald Tontsi with no mandate to speak on such matters goes public
  • June 16 weekend – I am in Cape Town to try to understand what is going on since the Tontsi statements sound crazy and find no substance to the allegations and start to understand just how deep the problems are; Dr Ramphele decides to reconstitute the NEC because it has become dysfunctional and is not addressing the problems that are threatening to destroy the party
  • 19 June – Agang task Team appointed by the leader to sort out the mess meets, delayed by the promise of the other side to contribute members, who do not show up; Andries Tloumma plays the same game with mediation: agrees, then reneges without excusing himself
  • 29 June – last of a series of meetings called without any recognized process culminates in Tloumma, Tshishonga and one other original NEC member proclaiming themselves a “quorum” despite precedents that the NEC required at least 4 members for a quorum, announce they are suspending the leader and create a new NEC
  • 3 July – The NEC Dr Ramphele created announces expulsion of those behind the 29 June meeting, who  take the matter to court, refusing attempts at a negotiated solution; meanwhile Dr Ramphele announces her withdrawal from politics

To court

Those of us who were asked by Mamphela Ramphele (MAR as she is affectionately known, after her initials) to join her reconstituted NEC and task team (intended to revive the party’s flagging fortunes by addressing pressing issues like finance and collapse of our membership systems) were the target of a high court interdict in Cape Town.

We decided that it would be pointless to contest the matter since parties that decide their affairs in court lose the public. Nonetheless we felt, at the urging of members who didn’t want history to be defined by the winning side of the court battle, that we had to put our side. This we did by submitting a lengthy affidavit (which you can read here).

One of the effects of the interdict is that none of us named as respondents is entitled to speak for the party in any capacity. At the time, I was a provincial spokesperson in good standing. Their destabilization campaign started with unauthorized spokespersons making wild statements. It seems they do favour party discipline in the strictest terms when it suits their cause.

Where we are now is that the MPs’ faction has won control of the party and the problems that have existed for more than 3 months are still there to be solved. They now have to be solved by a party that had made itself look ridiculous, and which no longer has a leader of international (let alone national) stature.

Fraud claims abandoned – but not the end

By this stage, MAR was out of the fight. Though named as a respondent, she had withdrawn from the party, and used the case to persuade the MPs to drop their accusations of fraud, and we took that as a victory, because their case had been built on the claims that she was sidelining them to cover up this alleged fraud, which now turned out to have no substance. But the other side disagreed and pressed on, and our understanding was that putting this affidavit to the judge would not put us in line for costs, because we were merely adding facts for consideration, and agreeing to abide by his decision.

We were taken completely by surprise when the matter went to court Monday 4 August and the judge not only found in favour of the MPs and their supporters, but awarded costs against us. If you do not contest a matter, is not surprising that you lose. What is surprising is that the judge would award costs against us without inviting us to argue against that. We will be asking for reasons to see if we can do anything about this but in the meantime have to face the possibility of heavy costs.
Since one of the details in the order is that we cannot claim to act for Agang that in effect means we carry the costs in our personal capacity. If you think that is unfair, we invite your to help us with those costs. Anything we collect in excess of that need will go to our new active citizens movement, which you can sign up for here. If you want to support us, please fill in the form below, and deposit the money to our account.