Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Moving back to South Africa

I take up a position as associate professor of Computer Science at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa on 1 April; I’m putting this article up in advance because stories with a 1 April dateline have a certain connotation.

This one’s for real.

After several years at the School of IT and Electrical Engineering at the University of Queensland, St Lucia and slightly fewer years at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the same campus, why am I heading back to South Africa?

Several reasons.
  • a place I can contribute more – while it’s great being in a large well funded institution for many reasons, it’s a lot harder to feel you are making a difference. And Australia’s economy isn’t going to grow a whole lot on the back of what I can do; South Africa on the other hand has many opportunities that I and my graduates can open up with the right skills
  • small institution bureaucracy – or lack thereof: a university with 6,000 students has to be a lot less unwieldy to navigate on a day to day basis
  • a place where Computer Science has respect – in more than one university where I’ve done time, I’ve been left with a feeling that computer science is seen as a second-class subject, without the venerable history of physics. The fact that it has led the fastest advance of any era of human technological history apparently doesn’t mean much. Rhodes computer science is a relatively big department in a small university, and its professors have been deans and deputy vice-chancellors.
And finally:
  • going home – Rhodes is in a part of the country that I haven’t lived in but despite the many attractions of the land of Oz, it isn’t really home
I will still be in Australia for a while because I need to take care of a few details like selling a house. I will miss the possums that sleep on my top balcony, the great open spaces, the Great Barrier Reef, walks in the mountains and the appealingly weird wildlife. I won’t miss the dishonest media and the short-term self-serving politics. Not that South Africa is that brilliant on the latter score.

A Greens Party in South Africa, perhaps as a side project?

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Campbell Newman Running without a Seat

When The Australian described Campbell Newman resigning his mayoral position to lead the LNP’s parliamentary team from outside parliament as “Campbell Newman running without a seat” I waited for the professional cartoonists to take up the idea. They didn’t so here’s my attempt.

Strange things happen in Queensland politics but none stranger than this.

Campbell Newman needs a substantially bigger swing to take Ashgrove from Labor than his party needs to take the state. That means it is conceivable that he could fail to win a seat with the LNP winning. The LNP needs to clarify what this scenario means. Will Jeff Seeney become the state premier by default, as the “interim” leader? Will the party room hold an election for a new leader right after winning? Or will Campbell Newman continue to call the shots from outside parliament?

Only in Queensland.

And these clowns expect us to vote for them.

If only they would get their act together. Labor deserves to lose, but not to this bunch. The best option is a hung parliament with the Greens in the balance of power. That seems to be working reasonably well in Tasmania and in the federal parliament.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

How to make Meringues

Making crispy meringues is not too hard. I’ve reported this before but it’s worth repeating in an article of its own.

You need to observe a few basics:
  • eggs do not beat well from cold; bring them to room temperature
  • separate the egg whites you will be using cleanly; any yolk is no good
  • do not over-whisk at first
  • use a copper mixing bowl, otherwise you may need to add extra ingredients to get the best effect
Here’s how to make enough meringues to fit a baking tray:
  • 3 eggs
  • 125g finely granulated sugar or caster sugar
Whip the egg whites until they are foamy, then gradually add the sugar while continuing to whip. You want to aim for a mixture that holds its own shape:

Note I use a balloon whisk; this is saves me spending time in a gym. Use a reasonably large one. Once you have the mix stiff enough, shape it into meringues on a nonstick baking sheet:
I shape mine with a spoon as you can see from the shape variants.

Bake in a 90°C oven (190°F for the troglodytes) for 2-3 hours, depending how crunchy you like them. For a drier effect leave them in the oven overnight, to dry out further as the oven cools.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Mean not so Clean Domain Naming Business

A while back for a specific campaign, I had a self-hosted WordPress blog. I decided that for the future, it would be simpler to maintain on Blogger. The problem is I bought the domain name from, who do not have any obvious way to detach the domain name from them and for absolute simplest future maintenance, I wanted to buy the domain via Blogger.

After repeated emails and online service requests, with gormless responses that always started with
Dear valued customer,

Your email has been received by the Domain Services Team. One of our domain services representatives will review and respond to your request.

I gave up at the point where they said they would park the domain name for 90 days, then charge me a penalty if I wanted it back. This seemed to me rather the contrary to being a “dear valued customer” but I didn’t think it would matter too much between campaigns if the domain registration lapsed for a few months. A little more than 3 months later, I tried to buy the domain name for the blogger site, and found had sold it to a Japanese domain parking company.


A low-budget non-profit campaign is not the thing to be wringing the last dollar out of (hint: there was  reason I used a “.org” domain name). They can keep their domain name. And their service.

The warning for next time? If you buy a domain name, make sure it’s yours to keep and you can easily transfer it away from whoever registered it on your behalf.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

A New Modernity

Japan has done it. South Korea has done it. China may yet do it. A society with a long cultural tradition that has become stuck in old ways or that has become corrupted and lost its internal drive can only escape by defining its own modernity. Yes, there are major flaws in each of those I've cited: Japan went the extremely bad path of adventurous militarism in the first half the the twentieth century, and even today has an excessively strong work ethic to the detriment of quality of life. China is still far from a modern society in truly embracing the universal values of freedom of speech, freedom of association and accountable government.

In much of Africa, defining modernity remains elusive because much of Africa is still caught up in a victim psychosis, something South African activist Steve Biko identified in the 1970s as a critical problem. In his Black Consciousness movement, a critical element of their politics was building self esteem, including excluding White liberals from decision-making. The theory was not racially based, but rather aimed to liberate disadvantaged Black South Africans from the thinking that their plight was out of their control.

Today in the Middle East and North Africa, a transformation is under way that looks like defining a new modernity for the region. As I was formulating the thoughts that went into this article, I was pleased to encounter this TED talk by Wadah Khanfar, director-general of Al Jazeera. Much of what he says exactly echoes my thoughts on the subject.

What has made all this possible? Very much as in the 1976 Soweto uprising, young people who have not had the experience of their elders of being cowed by a police state have taken to the streets to demand their freedom. Sadly, in 1976, the Biko spirit was stilled before his organization had grown to critical mass. Biko himself was murdered by the apartheid regime in 1977, and many of his supporters gravitated to the ANC, as the only major organization in exile with any capacity to fight back – limited though that was. In the process, many of his core ideas were lost, not least the need to break free from the past. Today, much of the problem South Africa has in growing as a society arises from failures to transcend the apartheid past. Many Black people justifiably still feel they are victims but that feeling is not an empowering feeling, rather it is one that easily gives way to despair and disillusionment when facing intractable problems.

So where next for the Arab revolution? A key thing that is different this time around is that a tool for mass mobilisation exists that didn't exist in apartheid South Africa: social networks. The nearest analog I can think of for what is happening now is the early stages of the rejection of Robert Mugabe, when text messages were used to spread the word that he wasn't as popular as most people thought. The upshot of this was that he lost a referendum on a new constitution in February 2000, which would have entitled him to redistribute land without compensation. This did not amount to regime change, and gave Mugabe the space to organize against opposition before the next election, which he nonetheless only won by extensive fraud.

Where the Arab revolution differs is that it has effected regime change in sufficient countries to make a difference, and the tools of mass mobilisation will not be closed down easily in those countries. Already in Egypt, the prime minister appointed after the military takeover has been forced to step down. Libya is possibly the most difficult case, with plenty of evidence that the Gaddafi regime will kill as many people as it takes to cling to power.

The exact form the Arab modernity will take is yet to be determined. I would like to bet it will not include slavish copying of external cultures, nor will it include a regressive interpretation of Islam. Universal values are at the core of the change that is now sweeping the Arab world, and those universal values are being interpreted by ordinary people – not being imposed from outside. That is important, because democracy is not a piece of paper. No matter how good a constitution you have if the population as a whole is unwilling to or afraid of demanding their rights, it is only a piece of paper.